Colorado was supposed to be the epicenter of this fall’s ballot box battles on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the controversial drilling practice that involves shooting chemically-saturated water deep into the ground to blast apart shale rock and expose oil and gas reserves.
Deep in the heart of some of the nation’s richest oil and gas fields, voters were gearing up to take part in two state-wide referenda in November. The first would have quadrupled the size of Colorado’s minimum 500-foot “buffer” zone between oil and gas wells and occupied buildings. Another would have established local control of energy resources, paving the way for a future series of bans and moratoria.
A lot was at stake. Activists saw a historic victory within their grasp. Oil and gas execs worried about the long-term financial impact of such wide-reaching votes; Democratic kingmakers were filled with dread at the thought of fracking dominating the election cycle, risking the loss of a critical U.S. Senate seat and governorship in the Rocky Mountain State. Now the latter two camps can rest easy, thanks to an eleventh-hour deal brokered by top Democrats and the energy industry.
On Monday, the day the ballot-qualifying signatures were due, the group leading the petition drive, Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, heavily funded by Congressman Jared Polis (D‑Colo.), agreed to drop both measures. In exchange, Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper — an opponent of both initiatives and such a partisan of shale drilling that he once boasted of drinking fracking fluid—agreed to launch a new commission to make non-binding recommendations on the topic to the state legislature. The state also agreed to drop its lawsuit challenging a local ban on fracking in the town of Longmont, and the oil and gas industry abandoned two of its own pro-fracking ballot initiatives.
Polis is believed to have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of the ballot initiatives, according to the Washington Post. The congressman has acknowleded bankrolling Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, though the full extent of his involvement is unclear; the group received a large donation from another Polis-backed organization that is not required to disclose its donors.
Appearing at a joint press conference with Hickenlooper on Monday, Polis cheered the last-minute deal. “For the first time, this puts citizens on an equal footing with industry,” he told the Denver Post.
Many activists don’t share that sense of optimism. They say other motivations shaped the agreement.
“This deal was clearly struck in the name of political expediency to protect politicians and not to safeguard the people of Colorado from fracking,” says Sam Schabacker, Mountain West region organizer for Food & Water Watch, a national environmental group that campaigns against fracking.
As Schabacker points out, if asked about fracking on the campaign trail, Hickenlooper and Democratic Senator Mark Udall can now comfortably point to the commission and say the issue is being addressed. A recent poll found each candidate leading his respective GOP counterpart by a single percentage point. The fracking debate risks alienating environmentally conscious Democratic voters and serves only to benefit the GOP, the logic goes.
There’s also something in the deal for Polis. For one, the congressman emerges with more political clout after displaying his organizing and fundraising skills. He’s also able to preserve his standing within the party’s ranks. The former businessman, a celebrated fundraiser and rising star in the party, is widely regarded as one of the top contenders to lead the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, once current chairman Rep. Steve Israel (D‑N.Y.) retires. It’s no secret that Polis’ sympathy for the anti-fracking cause was starting to annoy key Democratic players.
“It stands to reason that Polis probably wouldn’t win that chairmanship if he was going to be accused of causing the Democrats to lose the Senate,” says Schabacker. With the Senate up for grabs due to a host of close races, the Colorado contest could have national repercussions.
The turn of events has activists feeling very bitter.
“We feel like bargaining chips in backroom deals,” says Kaye Fissinger, president of Our Longmont, a group that also championed a referendum that outlawed fracking in the town in 2012—the first of five such municipal-level bans in the state. “In a nutshell, all of us who worked on this in Longmont feel absolutely betrayed by what took place.”
In the last couple of weeks, Fissinger’s group helped collect about 500 signatures on each of the two ballot questions. A couple dozen people, she says, did most of the leg work.
“We were assured in Longmont when we met with the campaign director that there were already adequate signatures to get this on the ballot, and they were going for it,” Fissinger says. “Either the campaign manager did not know what was going on behind the scenes or he told us something that was not true.”
“To have our signatures thrown away is like a kick in the gut,” says Karen Dike, who serves as legislative chair for the state’s Sierra Club chapter and coordinated much of the petition drive in Longmont. “You’re left feeling like you went into this maybe a bit too naively. You begin to think, wow, why didn’t I see this coming? I guess when I saw that they were collecting money, they were very serious.”
A request for comment sent via email to Safe Clean Colorado—the electoral arm of Polis’ Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy — was not returned.
When Polis attended a town hall in his native Boulder on Tuesday, he felt the heat from a pack of a few dozen protesters.
One protester’s sign, in a reference to the popular Netflix drama that chronicles the shady wheeling and dealing of Washington political life read “House of Cards Starring Jared Polis As ‘The Sellout.’”
A spokesperson for Polis did not respond to request for comment.
Tyson Slocum, director of the Energy Program at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, stresses the chief prize of Monday’s compromise — the 18-member advisory commission — is no consolation.
“You’ve taken a big step down from giving the people of Colorado a direct say to an advisory committee that can give recommendations that aren’t binding,” Slocum says. “It’s replacing something that had teeth with something that’s window dressing.”
Hickenlooper has already named the two chairpersons of the task force — an environment-friendly county commissioner Gwen Lachelt and XTO Energy president Randy Cleveland. (XTO Energy is a subsidiary of Exxon-Mobil). Hickenlooper has not yet named the other 16 members.
Colorado environmental activists are still mulling their next steps. They may push for another statewide ballot initiative in the next election or continue pursuing municipal-level bans.
At any rate, the movement should avoid replicating this year’s top-down organizing model, says Russell Mendell, spokesperson for Frack Free Colorado, another anti-fracking group in the state.
“If you want something like this to happen, you can’t have one person who is the central person who can make these decisions for everyone else,” Mendell says. “I think that was the real problem.”