Anti-Fracing Lessons From Colorado

Anyone with an interest in oil and natural gas development has been watching the state of Colorado very closely for the past several years. Starting in 2012, national environmental groups ran several successful local “ban fracing” campaigns in Colorado and have threatened a series of constitutional amendments to drive oil and gas development out of the state completely.

In 2014 and again this year, the activists claimed they were ready, willing and able to put their anti-fracing agenda on the statewide ballot by gathering tens of thousands of signatures from Colorado voters. And yet, on both occasions, the promised campaigns never materialized. The activists backed down in 2014, and this year they simply failed to gather the 98,492 signatures needed to propose an amendment to the state constitution.

If history is any guide, Colorado’s anti-fracing campaign will be back again. Only time will tell what the rebooted campaign looks like, of course. But some lessons from the recent past can provide some idea of what to expect.

Not Local, National

Ever since the 2010 collapse of carbon cap-and-trade legislation in Congress, many environmental groups have shifted their focus from Washington, D.C., to the state and local level. One of their biggest victories took place in New York, where shale gas development was banned in 2014 before it had the chance to start. But the activists have had a much tougher time shutting down development in states that already produce oil and gas, which is the kind of victory that would really turn heads in the nation’s capital.

After New York, Colorado is an appealing target for a few reasons. It has a long history of oil and gas development, and according to the Energy Information Administration, it’s the seventh-largest energy producing state in the nation. The state’s population has been growing at an impressive rate thanks to inward migration from other states.

This has resulted in major growth in and around Denver and two college towns in northern Colorado, Boulder and Fort Collins. And the suburbs of these three cities have been growing into one of the state’s long-established energy producing regions: the Denver-Julesburg Basin.
Environmental activists seized on this situation by staging a series of local “ban fracing” campaigns in communities along the western edge of the DJ Basin. From 2012 to 2014, there were six campaigns and the activists won five of them. These campaigns were heavily supported by a national anti-fracing group called Food & Water Watch, also a key player in the New York fracing ban. But the campaigns were presented to the public as spontaneous and grass-roots efforts.
The drumbeat for a statewide anti-fracing campaign began. And yet, the activists had a problem. As more national groups rushed into the fray — 350.org, Sierra Club, Greenpeace and others — they failed to broaden their support base inside Colorado.

In 2014, the best they could manage was a loose partnership with Democratic Rep. Jared Polis, a millionaire and lawmaker with a lengthy track record of working with national anti-fracing groups. But Polis later withdrew two anti-fracing ballot measures under enormous pressure from other Democrats, who feared they would spell electoral disaster for the party.

This year, the problem is the same, only worse. More than 85 percent of the financial and in-kind contributions to the statewide anti-fracing campaign came from East Coast and West Coast environmental groups, and the signature-gathering drive was led by the national activist organizations 350.org, Food & Water Watch and Greenpeace, according to records kept by the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.

Going into 2017 and 2018, this problem is likely to persist. After four years of campaigning, Colorado’s anti-fracing movement still depends almost completely on national environmental groups to function. Unless this changes, the campaign’s effectiveness will be significantly limited.

The Activists Won’t Be Appeased

Environmental groups are an important — and growing — constituency for the Democratic Party. And yet, in Colorado, anti-fracing activists have spent four years attacking an oil and gas regulatory structure that was created almost exclusively by Democrats.

Oil and gas regulations have been dramatically tightened in Colorado over the past decade, first under Gov. Bill Ritter and then under Gov. John Hickenlooper, both Democrats. For most of that time, Democrats have controlled the state legislature, too.

In practical terms, environmental groups could not have asked for more access to state government and influence over oil and gas policy in Colorado during the past decade. But the rhetoric from opponents of the oil and gas industry suggests exactly the opposite.

Polis, the Congressman and millionaire backer of the 2014 ballot initiatives, has said the oil and gas rules developed under two Democratic governors lack “any meaningful protections for homeowners or communities.” Meanwhile, the anti-fracing committee formed to promote this year’s ballot measures said in a statement that “[fracing] is dangerous to the health and safety of the state’s residents.”

After the failure of those measures to make the ballot, the national “ban fracing” groups will almost certainly turn their attention to the Colorado Legislature next year. Some lawmakers, no doubt, will argue that new laws or regulations will address the concerns of the activists and prevent a future ballot-measure fight.

But the record tells a very different story. No matter how stringent the laws and regulations, if they allow oil and gas development to continue, the activists will not be appeased.

Health Claims Don’t Match the Facts

Perhaps the most important lesson from the Colorado experience relates to public health. Through the years, national anti-fracing groups have made a series of alarming health claims, from asthma rates to cancer risks to birth defects.

But state health officials have consistently fact-checked those claims against the data and reached very different conclusions. “We don’t see anything to be concerned with at this point in time,” Dr. Larry Wolk, Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, recently told the Greeley Tribune. “[The data] says that there’s no reason to believe that there is a causal relationship between oil and gas operations and chronic diseases or cancers,” he said.

Needless to say, the huge difference between the talking points of the activists and the findings of state public health officials in Colorado is a big problem for the anti-fracing campaign. It undermines the credibility of that campaign in a serious and fundamental way.
These aren’t the only lessons to be learned from Colorado’s experience with anti-fracing campaigns, of course. But if you are concerned about what the activists will do next, in Colorado and possibly in other states, they are a good place to start.

About the author: Simon Lomax is a Managing Director with FTI Consulting in Denver. He advises pro-business groups and holds an adjunct position with the Independence Institute, a free market think tank. Before going into advocacy, he was a news reporter for 15 years and covered energy policy for Bloomberg News and Argus Media. The views expressed are his own. Contact him at simon.lomax@fticonsulting.com.

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