Colorado’s Frack-Free Movement Sacrificed for Democrats Facing Re-election

Political compromise delivers a sudden slap in the face for green groups behind two ballot initiatives, now derailed.

Shane Davis, a well-known fracking opponent in Colorado known by many as "the Fractivist," says "we were all betrayed" when Gov. John Hickenlooper made a deal with Rep. Jared Polis to drop two anti-fracking ballot initiatives the congressman was supporting. Credit: Steve Harbula

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8/11/2014: The story has been updated with comment from the campaign director of Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy.

Backed by a wall of suited supporters, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper proudly announced Monday that it was game-over for two popular anti-fracking state ballot initiatives.

Among the supporters was Pete Maysmith, executive director of the green group Conservation Colorado. But notably absent from the Denver press conference, however, was the rest of the green scene—members of the state’s dozens of environmental grassroots groups. Many had helped collect far more than the 86,105 signatures required to get the two fracking measures on the ballot by the Aug. 4 deadline. On Monday, they waited in their homes and offices to hear the good news—that the signatures numbering more than 250,000 combined–had officially been submitted.

Instead, they heard that their long fight was suddenly over. 

For many, it was a slap in the face. “There is fury,” said Kaye Fissinger, an anti-fracking activist from Longmont, a Boulder suburb that approved a fracking ban and was sued by the industry and the state. Many people “see it as a betrayal,” she said.

But all this is much more about politics than it is about deception.

Over the weekend, pro-industry Hickenlooper struck a last-minute deal with Democratic Congressman Jared Polis, who helped financed the initiatives, to tackle the mounting public concerns over fracking through a new commission. In return, Polis pulled his financial support from the ballot measures, effectively ending the campaign. Polis had been under significant pressure from the Democratic party, including Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall, to drop his anti-fracking agenda ahead of a crucial fall election. Both Hickenlooper and Udall are up for re-election this year. The party’s fear is that the initiatives would be a wedge issue and split the Democratic vote at a time when Democrats cannot afford to lose a single seat.

Conservation Colorado, the local chapter of the political environmental action group League of Conservation Voters, heard of the deal the day before it was announced. The group attended the press conference Monday; their mission is get strong environmental laws passed. Four other national green groups with a larger Rocky Mountain presence—SierraClub, Earthworks, Earthjustice, and Food and Water Watch—did not know of the deal beforehand. EDF and NRDC did not respond to repeated requests from InsideClimate News for comment. Only Food and Water Watch has criticized the deal. The others appear to be cautiously skeptical.

Colorado has become a hotbed of activism against fracking, a process that involves blasting a mix of chemicals, sand and water down a well to crack open shale bedrock and extract oil and gas. Proponents say it’s a boon for the economy. Home to an increasing number of fracking operations, the state produced a record 64.1 million barrels of oil in 2013, more than double the levels generated in 2008.

Opponents say the economic benefits don’t outweigh the concerns over the environment, public health and property rights, and that current industry rules are inadequate.

However, those concerned about fracking disagree on the solution. Should efforts focus on stronger state or federal regulations, or push for greater local control? Some believe no level of new rules is enough and that bans and moratoria are the only option.

The two controversial ballot measures would have strengthened fracking rules at the state and community level.

Compromise Not an Option for Some

The Polis-Hickenlooper deal creates an 18-person commission, co-chaired by La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt and Randy Cleveland, president of XTO Energy. The commission’s charge: propose to the state legislature new rules that would further protect Coloradoans from oil and gas drilling and production. Hickenlooper asked that the two anti-fracking initiatives, bankrolled by Polis and organized by Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, a group that started this year, be stopped. The governor asked the same from supporters of two pro-industry measures. All four fracking-related ballot campaigns were pulled Aug. 5.

Those most outraged by the compromise, including a well-known fracking data consultant and anti-fracking blogger for, Shane Davis, wanted a chance to vote on the ballot initiatives. No. 88 proposed extending the existing mandatory 500-foot setback of drilling rigs from buildings to 2,000 feet; No. 89 would create a state environmental bill of rights that would grant local governments the power to pass rules that are more forceful than the state’s.

Only two weeks ago, Davis said he heard Nick Passanante, campaign director for Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, assure a crowd in Erie, Colo., that Polis would maintain his support for the two anti-fracking measures. Upon hearing the recent news, Davis said, “We were all betrayed.”

Passanante said Davis’s “characterization” of his statement “is completely inaccurate.” The campaign has made clear that “we must and will always act under the premise that we are going to the ballot 100 percent. And once these measures qualify for the ballot there is no turning back,” Passanante said in an email. “That said, clearly, these ballot measures were not qualified for the ballot when this deal was reached. Nor would they have been for at least another two to three weeks after submitting signatures,” because every signature would have to be verified.

For Davis, politicians against fracking should stand their ground. He blames not only Polis, but what he called “gang green” (a play on the word gangrene)—in other words, environmental groups that support the deal, including Conservation Colorado.

“The environmental movement is diverse and varied in Colorado and we don’t always agree on everything,” said Maysmith, who heads Conservation Colorado. “We also don’t purport to speak for the entire movement. However, one thing we all agree on is that heavy industrial drilling and fracking activity is having a real impact on Coloradans and the state must do more to protect our environment and people.

“We will look to the commission announced as part of the compromise as an opportunity to have a robust discussion about the role of local government and oil and gas activity,” he said.

For many, compromise wasn’t an option. Less than a day after the conference, Davis had created an online petition titled: “Tell Congressman Jared Polis that he Cannot Betray 300,000 Signatures Supporting Clean Air and Pure Water in Colorado.” More than 2,000 people have signed it. 

Davis and Josh Fox, director of the fracking documentaries Gasland Part I & II, joined nearly 100 protesters outside a Polis town hall meeting in Boulder on Aug. 5. The congressman stopped and talked to the angry crowd. He tried to explain his actions and reaffirmed his support for bolstering public protections against fracking.

The compromise shows that Polis submitted to the election pressures, said Bruce Baizel, director of Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project, a national environmental group not involved with the ballot campaigns. Baizel expressed disappointment about the ballot initiatives being pulled, but sounded sympathetic to the congressman’s plight.

“It’s unfortunate that [Polis is] now being painted as the bad guy,” Baizel said. “If you can take a step back—the issues are caused by industry not wanting to be regulated and the state agency not doing enough to protect residents…not Polis changing his position.”

Baizel is taking a wait-and-see approach. He’s especially curious to see who the governor selects for the new task force on local control and land rights.

During the press conference, Polis said the commission offers “the first time citizens will be on equal footing with the oil and gas industry and will be able to directly negotiate to protect their property rights, their home values, clean water and air quality.”

Baizel sounded more cautious: “These commissions can be helpful but many times they turn to dead space,” he said.

The commission’s co-chair Lachelt, who has a grassroots and environmental activism background and founded Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project, told InsideClimate News: “If we can figure out a legislative solution, I think that’s certainly preferable than taking this to the ballot where we know tens of millions of dollars will be spent trying to get these ballot initiatives passed or opposed.

“If we don’t, it’s back to the ballot box in 2015.”

Clarification: A paragraph about Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy was clarified to more accurately reflect the group’s position that it was committed to not pulling the initiatives once they had qualified for the ballot. When the Hickenlooper-Polis deal was made, the initiatives still had not qualified for the ballot. A new quote by the group’s campaign director was added for clarification.