The Fossil Fuel Industry Spent $100 Million to Kill Green Ballot Measures in Three States — and Won

One clear takeaway from the ballot initiatives in Arizona, Colorado, and Washington state is that fossil fuel money can buy elections.

DACONO, CO - JUNE 7: An oil derrick pumps oil near a subdivision roundabout looking west on June 7, 2017 in Dacono, Colorado.  Gas and oil development, exploration and fracking operations are colliding more and more with subdivision and housing developments as the front range continues to grow. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
An oil derrick pumps oil near a subdivision roundabout looking west on June 7, 2017 in Dacono, Colo. Photo: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Patricia Nelson was eager for a fresh start when she moved her family from Louisiana back home to Weld County, Colorado, in 2016. Soon after, Nelson’s friend encouraged her to come out to a meeting where Lisa McKenzie, an environmental chemist and epidemiologist at the Colorado School of Public Health, was presenting her research on the health impacts of oil and natural gas drilling.

Weld County has one of the highest concentrations of oil and gas wells in the country — 23,000 within county limits. Its air quality carries an “F” rating from the American Lung Association, with infant mortality rates twice as high as those in surrounding counties. With around 50,000 active wells overall, Colorado just surpassed California to become America’s third-largest oil and gas producer after Texas and North Dakota.

“It was a crash course in fracking,” Nelson told me by phone. Colorado law, she learned, states that drilling operations have to be 1,000 feet away from school buildings, but that ordinance — known as a setback — doesn’t include surrounding school properties, like playgrounds or soccer fields. There, as McKenzie would explain, kids playing and running around breathe harder and heavier, increasing the amount of poisoned air that enters their lungs and bloodstream.

All of this hit too close to home: As she also learned, oil companies had just been approved to open 24 new drill sites near her then-4-year-old son Diego’s school, the kindergarten through third grade campus of Bella Romero Academy; the drilling would take place just behind the fourth through eighth grade campus, where her niece and nephew were students. The decision to drill near Bella Romero at all — where 87 percent of attendees are students of color, and 90 percent fall below the poverty line — was made after parents at an overwhelmingly white school refused to have the same rigs in their kids’ backyards.

Shocked by what she discovered, Nelson joined a coalition that would later become known as Colorado Rising and traveled around the state, telling people about the stakes at her son’s school. Colorado Rising’s work included a push for Proposition 112, a ballot measure to mandate a 2,500-foot setback zone between drill sites and homes, schools, and other vulnerable areas. That measure was defeated 57 to 43 on Tuesday night, in large part thanks to a full-fledged freakout by the fossil fuel industry, which, with $40 million, outspent Prop 112 proponents by at least 40 to 1.

“I guess the oil and gas industry is just another example of money buying elections.”

“This is much farther than we’ve gotten before, and we’re no longer going to accept this industry bullying us,” Nelson told me last night, celebrating the fact that Prop 112 even made it on the ballot. “We had a pretty good shot, but they definitely had way more resources than we did. I guess the oil and gas industry is just another example of money buying elections.”

Environmental initiatives on the ballot elsewhere in the country, vehemently opposed by industry groups, also flopped. A ballot initiative in Washington state to levy a $15 per ton carbon fee on polluters and invest the revenue in job creation, green infrastructure, and more was defeated 56 to 44 thanks to over $30 million from the oil and gas industry. In Arizona, electric utilities spent $31 million against Prop 127, which would have upped the state’s renewable portfolio standard, requiring the power sector to generate at least half its power from renewables by 2030. The proposition was largely bankrolled by liberal donor Tom Steyer via NextGen America, which poured $24 million in support, but it failed resoundingly, garnering just 30 percent of the vote.

DENVER, COLORADO - NOVEMBER 6: Ann Lee Foster, center, and Suzanne Spiegel, right, proponents of Proposition 112, center, hold back the tears as they concede defeat during the watch party for Proposition 112 at Big Trouble Restaurant inside Zeppelin Station on November 6, 2018 in Denver, Colorado.  Colorado voters defeated their measure that would have created larger setbacks for oil and gas. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Ann Lee Foster, center, and Suzanne Spiegel, right, proponents of Proposition 112, hold back the tears as they concede defeat during the watch party for Proposition 112 at Big Trouble Restaurant on Nov. 6, 2018 in Denver, Colo.

Photo: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Tuesday wasn’t an unambiguous win for the industry, though — even in Colorado. Amendment 74 — polling high before the election and far better than Prop 112 — would have allowed property owners to sue local governments and the state for any infringement on their profits, but fell short of the 55 percent of votes needed to be grafted into Colorado’s constitution. The campaign for Amendment 74 was small compared to the fight against Prop 112 but still sizable, with $11.2 million raised by backers — about $10 million from oil and gas — and $6.3 by opponents under the banner Save Our Neighborhoods.

Still, one clear takeaway from the midterms ballot initiatives is that fossil fuel money can buy elections. Apparently, $100 million can buy four of them. “They’re putting up big numbers,” said Edgar Franks, a Bellingham-based labor organizer who helped draft and campaign for I-1631 with the environmental justice group Front and Centered. “You can tell that where this is actually a threat to the way that they do business, because they know it’s going to work.”

While Washington Gov. Jay Inslee backed I-1631 — having failed to get his own carbon fee through the legislature this spring — his Colorado counterpart was on the opposite side of the fight in his state. Prop 112 failed amid opposition not just from the oil and gas industry, but also from now-outgoing Colorado governor and former oil industry geologist John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, along with governor-elect Jared Polis and his Republican opponent. The Colorado Democratic Party, however, supported it. Polis’s opposition was ironic, given that he himself had spearheaded the push for a 2,000-foot setback rule several years ago before eventually withdrawing it from the ballot.

Despite Polis’s opposition to Prop 112, Colorado Rising is cautiously optimistic about working with his administration, a position bolstered by the fact that Democrats managed to flip the state legislature last night. “Polis clearly understands that fracking is dangerous near communities,” said Micah Parkin, a board member of Colorado Rising and executive director of 350 Colorado. “He may not agree with us on 2,500 feet, but he clearly gets that it doesn’t belong near our children’s schools and homes and water sources.”

The bar for improving Hickenlooper’s record on extraction has been set pretty low. The outgoing governor had threatened to call a special lame duck session of the state legislature in the event of Prop 112’s passage.“ It’s incredibly undemocratic,” said Parkin in advance of the vote. “The very idea that he would think it’s OK to turn around and ignore the will of the people, when thousands of his own constituents have worked so hard.”

The statement wasn’t unprecedented for Hickenlooper. In 2013, he openly threatened to sue any city that banned fracking within its borders and in fact, did sue Longmont and Fort Collins after they implemented restrictions on fracking. The state’s suit also undermined the legal standing of three other bans and moratoria. “Topics like these,” Nelson told me, “are the ones that enable the true colors of our representatives to come out. It just shows that he’s never been on the side of the people, he’s been on the side of industry.”

Predictably, then, the fight over Proposition 112 got ugly. Oil and gas interests painted the measure as an attempt to ban fracking in the state, though it in fact only added on to policies that already exist, which require a 500-foot setback from homes and 1,000-foot setback from schools. In collecting signatures this summer to get Prop 112 on the ballot, canvassers were followed and surrounded by paid protesters. “It would be between two and four of us who would plan out where to collect signatures,” Nelson said. “We would get there and 15 or 20 minutes later, these kids would show up with their signs. Unless they were following us, how would they know where we were?” She suspects at least some of them were University of Colorado students and had awkward encounters with them around town after encountering them while petitioning.

A political consultant hired by Colorado Rising this summer to help collect signatures also walked out of the state with 15,000 signatures, which were only retrieved after the group filed a lawsuit to have them returned.

The industry also publicly — and knowingly — overstated the impact of the measure. As Denver’s 9News found from a leaked report that industry groups had seen a report from the consultancy RS Energy stating that their losses would be far less than what they projected out over airwaves. The industry-friendly state regulator, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, had instead claimed in July that some 80 percent of non-federal land in Colorado — the only land covered by Prop 112 — would be off-limits to drilling. Yet the RS Energy report shows that companies would maintain access to 61 percent of the state’s oil and gas reserves. That’s partially because although companies would be barred from drilling within setback zones, horizontal drilling techniques — where the well mouth is within permitted drilling areas — could still access minerals under off-limits areas from up to a mile away.

“People have tried so many different ways to protect themselves over the years, and this was the last recourse.”

While it would have been the country’s most ambitious regulatory check on the fossil fuel industry, Parkin and Nelson both emphasized that Prop 112 was a kind of method of last resort. Those looking to place more regulations on the oil and gas industry had tried to get bills passed through the legislature and appealed to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission — all to no avail. “People have tried so many different ways to protect themselves over the years,” Parkin said, “and this was the last recourse.”

A supporter of Initiative 1631 holds a sign referencing the Nisqually Indian Tribe, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, during a rally supporting I-1631, a November ballot measure in Washington state that would charge a fee on carbon emissions from fossil fuels. The rally was organized by tribal and environmental leaders, and took place near the offices of the Western States Petroleum Association in Lacey, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

A supporter of Initiative 1631 holds a sign referencing the Nisqually Indian Tribe, on Oct. 17, 2018, during a rally supporting I-1631 in Lacey, Wash.

Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP

It was a similar story in Washington, where the legislature failed earlier this year to get a somewhat similar carbon tax measure through the legislature, falling short by “one or two votes.” A 2016 ballot initiative had failed to — by a margin of 20 percent — after drawing fire from the same groups now pushing for I-1631 over its lack of both investment in green projects and attention to the demands of climate and environmental justice groups. The campaign this time around was comparatively massive, drawing in a huge coalition of labor groups, indigenous communities, climate nonprofits, and more.

The biggest limiting factor to commonsense climate policies like Prop 112 and I-1631 isn’t either old school climate denial or bad design, but the sheer force of the fossil fuel industry’s seemingly endless capacity to pour money into elections. While theoretically supportive of carbon pricing and some vague sense of climate action, fossil fuel interests this cycle showed their cards: If it poses a threat to their profits, it’s going down. Fightbacks like the one posed to Amendment 74 are possible. Yet with Democrats taking the House — with several climate hawks now in their ranks — any push on climate there will have to reckon with the colossal funding might of the industry, and the kind of opposition Prop 112 faced from members of their own party sponsored by them.

On the heels of the latest IPCC report — which makes the need to decarbonize every sector of the economy painfully clear — there isn’t really an alternative to going toe to toe with those companies, no matter how much of a David and Goliath fight it might be.

“This isn’t over for me, personally.  We have had a warning,” Nelson said, referencing that report, “that we either end our dependence on fossil fuels or things are going to get extremely rough for mankind. For me, it shows that it’s just about greed and money for this industry.”

Join The Conversation