Severance Tax Initiative Shows Environmental "Street Fight" Tactics in Action
National environmental activist groups have spent years trying to wipe out oil and natural gas development in Colorado. Sometimes, they openly demand a ban. More often, they propose unworkable laws and regulations that would bring energy development to a grinding halt.
Keeping up with the different demands and proposals is tough, but the goal is always the same. Just ask Josh Joswick, a Colorado organizer with the national anti-oil and gas group Earthworks.
"This is a street fight," Joswick told a conference of environmental activists in 2010. "This is a back-alley fight. And you've got to fight it any way you can [with] any tool you can use. Whether it's bans on drilling, whether it's local regulations, whether it's severance taxes … you have to make it as difficult as possible to develop [oil and gas]."
Seven years later, the anti-drilling playbook hasn't changed much at all. Take the severance tax measure proposed for the statewide ballot this year, for example. It would dramatically hike severance tax rates anywhere from 100 percent to 250 percent. While severe, the measure doesn't look like a ban at first glance.
But the measure's sponsor is Andrew J. O'Connor, an anti-fracking activist from Boulder County. He's not interested in stricter regulations on energy development, or in tax revenues from continued oil and gas production. Quite simply, O'Connor wants to eliminate Colorado's oil and gas sector.
"[D]on't we have a moral responsibility to blow up wells and eliminate fracking and workers?" O'Connor wrote in a recent opinion piece. When a reporter called O'Connor to explain his comments, he doubled down. "I wouldn't have a problem with a sniper shooting one of the workers," O'Connor told ColoradoPolitics.com.
O'Connor has even seized on a tragic house explosion in Firestone to justify his violent rhetoric. He's not alone: Earthworks, Sierra Club, 350.org and other anti-oil and gas groups are also using the tragedy to push their agenda, even though their calls to ban new drilling are completely unsupported by the findings of investigators.
O'Connor has also tried selling his extreme brand of environmental politics to elected officials. "Fracking is murder," the activist wrote in an e-mail exchange, uncovered by Western Wire, with Broomfield City Councilman Kevin Kreeger. "Fracking workers are mercenaries. Fracking is commercial terrorism. Is anything I wrote not true?"
"I appreciate the clarification!" replied Kreeger, who expressed interest in proposing a local version of the severance tax increase for Broomfield.
O'Connor's severance tax initiative – which still has a chance of making the ballot this year – is just one example of the "fight it any way you can" strategy. National activist groups seeking a total ban on oil and gas development have pushed other measures in Colorado, including bigger no-drill zones near buildings and other "areas of special concern," such as creeks, parks and open space.
But state regulators and the leaders of Colorado's business community have called out these measures for what they really are: Thinly veiled energy bans. Gov. John Hickenlooper even warned such measures would "drive oil and gas out of Colorado."
But that's the whole point, of course. The talking points may change, but the anti-oil and gas activists don't. Whether it's drilling bans, local regulations or severance taxes, they're fighting the same street fight year after year, trying to land a knockout blow against the state's energy sector.
They haven't succeeded yet, but the activists are just waiting for state, local and business leaders to let their guard down. With tens of thousands of jobs and tens of billions of dollars of economic activity at stake, let's hope that never happens.
Simon Lomax is a research fellow with Vital for Colorado, a coalition of state business leaders focused on energy policy. From 2004 to 2012, he was a news reporter covering energy and environmental policy in Washington, D.C. Find him on Twitter at @simonrlomax