LOMAX: Latest bid to ban oil & gas drilling in Colorado is déjà vu all over again
The more things change, the more they stay the same — especially if you’re in the business of running anti-oil and gas campaigns in Colorado.
In late December, a coalition of environmental activist groups announced the introduction of a statewide ballot measure targeting Colorado’s energy sector. “We’re doing this for a second time,” said campaign spokesperson Suzanne Spiegel. “We learned a ton last time, and that’s why we’re doing it again.”
The new ballot measure is a recycled version of a failed 2016 initiative pushed by a number of national “keep it in the ground” activist groups, including New York-based 350.org, California-based Sierra Club and Food & Water Watch and Greenpeace of Washington, D.C. The 2016 measure – Initiative 78 – would have banned oil and natural gas development within 2,500 feet of occupied buildings or “areas of special concern,” such as parks, irrigation canals and open space.
In the abstract, this may not sound too onerous. But after studying the measure closely, the Hickenlooper administration found it would effectively eliminate one of the state’s key industries.
Drilling would be banned across 90 percent of the Colorado’s land mass, state regulators concluded in a report and a series of maps on the impacts of the 2016 measure. In the counties where most of the state’s oil and gas production takes place, the drilling bans would be even bigger – 95 percent.
As I wrote for the Independence Institute at the time, the 2016 initiative would draw a circle with a 2,500-foot radius around every occupied building and around the borders of every so-called area of special concern. Each one of those circles covers roughly 450 acres — five times the size of Mile High Stadium and its parking lot, and many times greater than the area created by Colorado’s current setback requirements.
Therefore, under the terms of the 2016 initiative, Colorado would be blanketed with hundreds of thousands of huge overlapping no-drill zones, covering almost every part of the state. The cost would be staggering, when you consider oil and gas development supports tens of billions of dollars in economic activity in Colorado, hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local tax revenues, and thousands upon thousands of jobs.
This wasn’t an accident or an unintended consequence. The groups behind the 2016 measure want to ban oil and natural gas development across Colorado, the nation and even globally. That’s what “keep it in the ground” means. In case there was any doubt, the groups behind the 2016 measure also helped create Coloradans Against Fracking, a coalition that has long campaigned for statewide oil and gas ban.
Two years later, the measure has barely changed. In the new version, “areas of special concern” are now called “vulnerable areas,” and “setbacks” have been rebranded as “buffer zones.”
The players haven’t changed, either. In 2016, a group called Coloradans Resisting Extreme Energy Development – or CREED – supported Initiative 78 and a related measure to legalize local energy bans. The campaign has a new name, Colorado Rising, but it’s led by the same person, Tricia Olson, who served as executive director for CREED and its related ballot-measure committee.
Likewise, the leadership of Colorado Rising also includes Micah Parkin, executive director of the state chapter of 350.org. On Colorado Rising’s home page, you will even find the endorsement of 350.orgfounder Bill McKibben, who flew in from his home state of Vermont to campaign in favor the 2016 anti-oil and gas ballot measures.
Running the same campaign as they did two years ago is a curious decision for the activists, because in 2016, their campaign was a total failure. It hit a wall of bipartisan opposition, led by Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who warned the 2,500-foot setback initiative could also force the state to pay billions of dollars in compensation to mineral rights owners, on top of the already huge economic costs of an effective statewide drilling ban.
The Denver Post editorial board called the measures “reckless” at best and “devious” at worst. “[T]heir real purpose apparently was to ban oil and gas development while pretending to seek allegedly reasonable limits on its reach,” the newspaper said. Even some environmental groups were queasy about the ballot measures, according to POLITICO.
In the end, the 2016 measures didn’t even make the ballot. Despite a dramatic media stunt, in which dozens of half-empty boxes of petitions were delivered to the Secretary of State’s Office, the campaign came up short, and there was even a forgery investigation. After finding “layer after layer of similar looking signatures” in the anti-oil and gas petitions, 9News anchor Kyle Clark called the affair “a fracking dumpster fire of the democratic process.”
Yet from all appearances, anti-oil and gas groups are planning the same campaign all over again. Perhaps the only real difference is the nature of the measure: Statutory instead of constitutional. That’s because in 2016, Colorado voters decided constitutional amendments must receive signatures from all across the state – not just the 16th Street Mall in Denver and Pearl Street Mall in Boulder – to make the ballot, and then obtain a 55 percent majority at the polls to win approval.
Anti-oil and gas groups say they have learned their lessons. But with respect, this looks more like an effort to pretend the mistakes, deceptions and failures of 2016 never happened.