Colorado fracking ballot fight looms in 2016
Throughout three days of public testimony on Ursa Resources’ proposal to drill within the Battlement Mesa residential boundaries, or Planned Unit Development, residents opposing the plans lobbied Garfield County commissioners to reject the applications, stating that the sites were too close to homes.
“There is no mitigation for a bad location,” Dave Devanney, chair of Battlement Concerned Citizens, stated.
Prior to the unanimous approval of all three applications last Thursday, Commissioner Tom Jankovsky commented on the difficulty surrounding the decision. While acknowledging the impacts on nearby residents, which all parties agree will be felt to some degree, Jankovsky said commissioners also had to consider the legal rights of those who own the minerals.
That same struggle to balance those interests is playing out across Colorado, including at the state’s leading regulatory agency, which is in the process of implementing several recommendations dealing with local government involvement, and at the Colorado Supreme Court, which will decide the legality of a fracking ban in one Front Range city and a moratorium in another city — both were approved by voters but contested by the state and industry groups.
2016 BALLOT INITIATIVES
The fervor surrounding the issue of local control will likely heat up in 2016 with a new wave of ballot initiatives, similar to 2014 when Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep Jared Polis, D-Boulder, struck a compromise that staved off four oil-and-gas-related ballot initiatives.
Coloradans for Community Rights, a group that attempted to get a “local control” initiative on the 2014 ballot, submitted ballot language in August that is nearly identical to the 2014 proposal.
And on Tuesday a new organization, Coloradans Resisting Extreme Energy Development (CREED), submitted language for 11 ballot initiatives, including a ban on fracking and a local control proposal related specifically to oil and gas operations.
The organization does not intend on getting all 11 measures on the ballot, said Tricia Olson, executive director of CREED. Eight of the submissions are variations of mandatory setbacks. The intention behind submitting so many proposals was due, in part, to indecision within CREED, Olson said. Submitting 11 different initiatives provides more legal flexibility and allows more options as the group collects public feedback.
All 11 proposals have to go through the state’s legal process, and Olson said she does not expect CREED to discuss narrowing the number of proposals until mid-February.
Although CREED is relatively new, it consists of people with a range of experience.
“This organization was formed specifically to run initiatives,” Olson said.
Coloradans for Community Rights was not part of the Polis-Hickenlooper compromise, having halted its effort after determining it did not have enough time to collect the more than 86,000 valid signatures needed to put the initiative on the ballot.
The organization started this renewed effort earlier to avoid a similar situation in 2016, said Merrily Mazza, a Lafayette city councilor and president of Colorado Community Rights Network. The initiative would not implement a mandatory ban or setbacks; rather, it would amend the Colorado Constitution giving local communities control over oil and gas development, as well as other industrial activities.
The issue, Mazza said, is about who gets to decide on these activities: the residents or corporations?
The initiatives submitted by Coloradans for Community Rights and CREED drew immediate criticism from Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy, and Energy Independence, an issue committee created to fight ballot issues restricting energy development.
“We think they’re extreme and irresponsible and devastating to Colorado’s economy,” Karen Crummy, communications director for Protecting Colorado, said of the 11 proposals submitted Tuesday.
Crummy made similar remarks in August following the announcement by Coloradans for Community Rights. Much like that proposal, the new 11 would run counter to established laws, creating legal uncertainty, and would “kill jobs,” she said.
Further, Crummy argued that both Coloradans for Community Rights and CREED are taking an absolutist approach and ignoring the compromise made in 2014.
That compromise led to the formation of a task force, which made a series of recommendations earlier this year. Two of those recommendations are currently before the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is expected to continue weighing implementation of the measures in January.
LITTLE MIDDLE GROUND
The first recommendation deals with local governments’ role when an operator is siting a large facility in an “urban mitigation area,” which the state defines as a facility with 22 building units in a 1,000-foot radius or 11 building units in semi-circle with a 1,000-foot radius. There are additional requirements pertaining to high occupancy buildings, such as schools and hospitals.
In Battlement Mesa, Ursa was not obligated to comply with notification requirements due to a surface use agreement that predates state urban mitigation requirements, said Rob Bleil, regulatory and environmental manager for Ursa. However, the company did so anyway as a sign of good faith, Bleil added.
The second recommendation would require operators to register with local governments and allow those local governments to request a five-year drilling plan.
Over the course of three meetings in Denver, industry representatives, community organizations and others have argued against certain aspects of the proposals, stating they either go too far or not far enough.
That collaborative and comprehensive approach at the state level will strengthen regulations that are already considered a model for the rest of the country, Crummy said, but the organizations submitting the ballot initiatives clearly already made up their minds prior to the process playing out.
“It’s their way or no way,” she said.
However, without any teeth in the regulations, the recommendations do nothing when it comes to empowering local governments, Mazza said, adding that the compromise reached in 2014 was nothing more than a diversion on a contentious issue.
“It’s a joke and it was intended to do exactly nothing,” she said.
A FIGHT IN 2016
Being a “grassroots organization,” Mazza said Colorado Community Rights will look to collaborate with other like-minded organizations to form a unified voice in what is sure to be a fight in 2016.
Olson, with CREED, said her organization will continue to engage the public to foster support for specific initiatives, while looking to successful efforts in Fort Collins, where voters passed a five-year moratorium on fracking in 2013, and Longmont, where voters banned fracking in 2012. Both of those decisions have been contested by the state and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group. The matter is currently before the Colorado Supreme Court.
As for whether competing initiatives will be submitted by industry representatives — as was the case in 2014 prior to the Polis-Hickenlooper compromise — it is too early to be certain, Crummy said.
“At this point I just don’t know. I don’t think we’ve had time to digest all these initiatives that were filed [Tuesday],” she said. “I think we expected some, I don’t think we expected 11.”
All options are open, she added, and Protect Colorado will continue to publicly oppose the submitted initiatives.
Protect Colorado has $1.97 million in the bank, according to the most recent financial filings with the secretary of state. Colorado Community Rights has $7,086. The secretary of state’s database did not show a active registered status for CREED earlier this week.
While financial records appear to give a significant edge to Protect Colorado, Crummy said CREED is backed by large environmental groups that can essentially run campaigns without having to disclose certain details.
CREED maintains it is a grassroots organization.
At the local level, Devanney said Battlement Concerned Citizens will wait until specific and final proposals are on the table before possibly supporting a statewide ballot initiative.
The same goes for the Western Colorado Congress, said Emily Hornback, a community organizer with WCC, who worked with Battlement Concerned Citizens on objecting to Ursa’s proposals. The organization, according to its website, does not support an all-out ban but certain measures, such as 1,000-foot setbacks from homes, to restrict operations in certain locations.
An initiative supported by WCC would likely have to find that balance, Hornback said shortly after Garfield County commissioners approved the applications to drill in Battlement Mesa.
For now, Devanney said Battlement Concerned Citizens will work with the COGCC and other agencies to strengthen regulations and protections for residents.
Ursa submitted its state applications in early December and expects a decision on them within 90 days. Assuming the remaining permits are granted, Bleil said he would not expect construction to start until July or August.
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Grace Wesseling is an animal lover, a cheerleader of seven years and another soon-to-be graduate of Bridges High School, class of 2021.