KEEP-IT-IN-THE-GROUND GROUPS CAN’T DODGE THE IMPACTS OF REVAMPED SETBACK BALLOT MEASURES
Remember the 2,500-foot drilling setback pushed by national “keep it in the ground” groups 350.org, Food & Water Watch, Sierra Club and Greenpeace in 2016? It was exposed as a de facto statewide ban on oil and natural gas development by the Hickenlooper administration, and ultimately failed to make the ballot.
Two years later, the same groups are back again, but this time they are trying to sidestep the Hickenlooper administration’s damning assessment of a drilling ban within 2,500 feet of buildings and a long list of other locations chosen by the activists.
In the new versions of the ballot measures – Initiative 97 and the closely related Initiative 163 – the activists have made some changes designed to confuse the public and hide their real intentions. In one section, the ballot measures say the 2,500-foot setback applies to oil and natural gas development “not on federal land,” and in another section, it says the setback applies to “all new oil and gas development in the State of Colorado.”
We decided to explore the impacts of this year’s ballot measures, even if federal land is actually excluded – which is far from clear given the confusing language of initiatives 97 and 163. We talked to experts in Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping technology and oil and natural gas geology and developed a preliminary view of how the energy-producing areas of the state would be impacted.
Energy resources are concentrated in particular geological formations – better known as basins – rather than being evenly distributed underground. For this reason, we focused our attention on the six major oil and gas producing basins in Colorado.
Here’s the map we developed along with the percentage of each basin that would be subject to bans on new drilling and the redevelopment of older locations with newer technologies.
The counties outlined in blue represent Colorado’s top five oil and gas producing counties (Weld, Garfield, La Plata, Rio Blanco, and Las Animas) and energy development in each one of them would be sharply curtailed if initiatives 97 and 163 become law.
To be clear, this is only a preliminary look at the impacts of initiatives 97 and 163 and the issue demands further study. But the impacts on Colorado’s energy sector – and the broader economy and business community – would be severe.
In the Denver-Julesburg Basin, for example, almost 78 percent of the available surface area would be subject to drilling bans and redevelopment of existing sites with new technologies. Not only would oil and natural gas production in Weld County – the state’s top energy-producing county – be devastated, there would also be no room to offset that production from other parts of the DJ Basin, which stretches from the Wyoming state line south to Pueblo County.
The impact would be even worse in Southern Colorado. In the Raton Basin, which underlies Las Animas and Huerfano counties, the ban on energy development would exceed 89 percent of the surface area.
And here’s an important qualifier: This initial review of the impacts of initiatives 97 and 163 doesn’t account for the areas of federal land that were already off-limits to energy development. Much of the federal land “exempted” from initiatives 97 and 163 lies within national parks, national monuments, wilderness areas and other areas where drilling either isn’t allowed or is totally impractical due to geological or regulatory constraints.
Therefore, exempting federal land from a proposed 2,500-foot setback – if the initiatives really do that – does not change the intentions behind this ballot measure. Two years ago, “keep it in the ground” groups saw a setback ballot measure as their best chance to ban oil and natural gas development statewide. Today, the same groups are pushing almost identical ballot measures and their fringe political goals remain exactly the same.