Oil and Gas Drilling Setbacks Ballot Initiative Goes Live Online

Fracking operations less than 700 feet from the Bella Romero Academy playground in Greeley.
Fracking operations less than 700 feet from the Bella Romero Academy playground in Greeley. Lisa Gross
Safe and Healthy Colorado is now collecting signatures for Initiative 174, which calls for bigger fracking-well setbacks across the state. If it makes the November ballot, Coloradans will vote on whether to require a 2,500-foot safe zone between homes, schools and waterways and any new oil and gas development. (See the full text here.)

Two weeks ago, Colorado Rising stopped gathering signatures for the same ballot initiative, owing to health concerns raised by the coronavirus pandemic. But climate activists Anne Lee Foster and Suzanne Spiegel then formed the grassroots group Safe and Healthy Colorado in order to continue gathering signatures — virtually this time.

“Our initial effort was put in jeopardy during the pandemic, but then Governor Jared Polis issued an executive order that allowed for email and mail signature gathering, which gave our efforts a new hope that we would be able to make the ballot for the 2020 election cycle,” Foster says.

The current setback requirement for wells in Colorado is 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools, hospitals and other high-occupancy buildings. To push their case, Safe and Healthy Colorado members cite research from Lisa McKenzie and the Colorado School of Public Health demonstrating chemical exposure a half-mile from fracking sites; they also point out that 2,500 feet is a standard evacuation radius when there's a fire or explosion at a well.

For the initiative to get onto the November ballot, they must collect 125,000 valid signatures by August 3.

Although she acknowledges the effort will require plenty of support, Foster is hopeful that the initiative will not only make the ballot, but pass. “We feel that 2020 is the year that we’ll be successful with these efforts,” she says.

A similar ballot initiative that sought to increase oil and gas drilling setbacks from homes, businesses and waterways lost in November 2018, but Foster notes that the oil and gas industry spent over $40 million fighting it. Many oil and gas companies are struggling financially right now, she points out, so they may not be able to invest the same amount to oppose Initiative 174.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission declined to comment on the initiative.

Patricia Nelson is the parent of an incoming third-grader at Bella Romero Academy, a K-8 school in Greeley whose playground is less than 700 feet from Extraction Oil and Gas wells; she's worried about her son's health being affected by the nearby fracking operations. “Colorado can’t wait for the regulations to get passed, or for our politicians to do something about it. So we’re just going to have to do something ourselves,” she says.

Two hours after the initiative signature link went live on June 25, Safe and Healthy Colorado reports that it had already received 700 signatures.

“This is a movement of mothers, teachers, health-care providers and everyday citizens who are doing this in their spare time. And they’re doing it because it’s something that they really care about,” Foster says. “They’re trying to protect their families and communities.”
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