Oil and gas companies are spending heavily to crush three Colorado ballot initiatives that would limit fracking. And some of the state’s most powerful Democrats are helping them.
The stakes are particularly high for several Colorado communities that have voted to limit or ban oil and gas development locally. Those limits were nullified in two cities by state Supreme Court decisions earlier this month. So the ballot initiatives may be their last best chance to slow development whose speed has surprised even cities that initially supported oil and gas projects.
“We feel it is a last ditch effort,” said Tricia Olson, director of Coloradans Resisting Extreme Energy Development, or CREED, which is pushing to get two of the measures on the ballot.
One measure would allow cities to pass rules to limit or even ban oil and gas development locally; the other would disallow companies from building oil and gas facilities closer than 2,500 feet from “occupied structures.” A third, supported by a separate group called Coloradans for Community Rights, would empower communities to make all kinds of decisions, including whether to frack. The groups are currently in the process of gathering the 98,000 signatures required to get on the ballot.
Campaign finance filings released this month indicate just how much oil and gas companies are willing to pony up to drill freely.
An industry-backed committee created just to defeat fracking ballot measures in Colorado, called Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy, and Energy Independence, collected more than $6.3 million in the first five months of this year.
Most of the pro-fracking group’s money came from two $2.5 million donations, one each from Anadarko Petroleum and Noble Energy. Smaller contributions came from a dozen or so other oil and gas companies and industry groups.
Karen Crummy, who is a spokesperson for the group, said the measures would wreck the economy and strip farmers and ranchers of mineral rights that help them get by in tough times.
By comparison, on the anti-fracking side, CREED’s issues committee raised only $56,000. The total for Coloradans for Community Rights barely surpassed $5,700. The biggest anti-fracking donor, to CREED, was Tricia Olson, a retiree.
The fight for community control took off four years ago in a town named Longmont, when the industry spent more than $500,000 attempting to stop local voters from enacting a citywide ban. But the pro-ballot campaigners, who raised less than $30,000, won.
There was similar voter approval in 2013 in Lafayette, Fort Collins, Broomfield, and the city of Boulder. (Boulder County commissioners had passed a moratorium on fracking in early 2012.)
Ever since, the industry has dedicated itself to defeating the rules in court, an effort that climaxed on May 2, with a pair of Supreme Court decisions against Longmont and Fort Collins.
Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton claim they support locally enacted fracking limits. Sanders wants to ban the technique altogether, while Clinton says she would not support fracking “when any locality or any state is against it.”
But top Democrats in Colorado have warmed to the frackers.
Consider the case of Ted Trimpa, a registered lobbyist for Noble Energy and Encana oil and gas, who sits on the advisory committee of Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, another front group for Anadarko and Noble that is fighting the proposals.
If anyone knows the power of Colorado cash to swing local politics, it’s Trimpa. He was an architect of Colorado Democrats’ surprise take-back of state politics from Republicans in 2004. The scheme involved aiming the cash of four wealthy donors, known as the “Gang of Four,” at key races, and later evolved into an infrastructure for coordinated Democrat donations through a network of non-profits.
The “Colorado miracle” became a model for Democrats nationwide. Trimpa has since served as a board member of some of the national Democratic Party’s most important funding and policy appendages, including Democracy Alliance and ProgressNow, as well as the American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, which supports the Clinton campaign through a Super PAC of the same name.
He’s joined on the Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development advisory committee by Democratic superdelegate and former Gov. Roy Romer. And Trimpa’s old pal Tim Gill, one of the Gang of Four, is now chairman of another group, Colorado Concern, that has put money down to halt the initiatives.
Watch the video from the anti-fracking group Protect Colorado:
In 2014, two fracking ballot measures very similar to the ones being pushed now were bankrolled by America’s fifth-richest member of Congress (and another of the Democratic Gang of Four), Rep. Jared Polis.
But the measures were apparently too threatening to the political ambitions of too many Democrats. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper was facing re-election, as was Sen. Mark Udall — and Polis himself happened to be running to become chair of the Democratic Party’s Congressional Campaign Committee.
So at the last minute, Polis made a deal with Hickenlooper and oil and gas representatives to kill the measures before they made it to the ballot, despite the fact that the campaign had already collected 200,000 supporter signatures, more than enough to qualify for a vote. In exchange, oil and gas companies threw out a pair of pro-fracking measures, and Hickenlooper agreed to create a panel to recommend policies to hand more control and protection to communities where fracking was taking place. Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, who is up for re-election this year, had also pushed for the compromise.
Hickenlooper was re-elected — attracting nearly three times more oil and gas cash than his Republican opponent. Polis lost his bid for DCCC chair, and Udall lost, too. As for the promised panel, although Hickenlooper appointed six representatives from the oil and gas companies, he included not a single grassroots organizer that had been pushing for more local control. The panel’s recommendations failed to give significant new decision-making powers to communities.
Hickenlooper recently spoke at a luncheon alongside American Petroleum Institute head Jack Gerard, stating that this year’s ballot initiative to increase distances between homes and gas wells could invite lawsuits costing billions. “I don’t think it’s a good idea at all,” he said.
The anti-fracking campaign says it won’t get fooled again. “CREED is very sensitive to the fact that our Democrats had a large hand in the initiatives being pulled last time, because they had so much control,” said Lauren Petrie, a senior organizer for Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit backing the Colorado campaign. This time around, she said, they’re “making sure that this is remaining a grassroots-led effort.”