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Oil industry gets aggressive in fight over Colorado ballot measure to protect public from drilling

Notable Coloradans such as former star Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway and former U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton have appeared in television advertisements financed by the oil and gas industry to oppose a grass roots-driven ballot initiative — known as Proposition 112 — that would expand the buffer zone between homes and drilling sites.

In the latest development in the ballot initiative battle, the oil industry is bringing in celebrities to push back on the popular grassroots initiative. Individual natural gas companies are also spending huge sums of unregulated money on anti-proposition television advertisements.

“Given Elway’s past forays into politics, his presence alone suggests that he’s probably advocating for something bad,” the sports news website Deadspin reported Thursday. “That the ad itself contains nothing that could even charitably be described as ‘information’ beyond one suspiciously precise figure on Jobs Somehow Destroyed By Proposition 112 does nothing to assuage that suspicion.”

The Colorado ballot initiative would expand the buffer zones between homes and industrial oil and gas facilities. As with other ballot initiative attempts in the past, Colorado’s anti-fracking activists are sending the oil and industry into a frenzy, despite the relatively modest nature of the proposition.

If the proposition passes, it would give residents the peace of mind of knowing they will be safer from potential blasts and further away from the noise and odors that come with drilling operations. And it would allow the industry to continue drilling in less populated areas.

The industry has so far raised $30 billion to defeat the measure, about 40 times the money that environmental groups have raised. But Proposition 112 is far from radical. It doesn’t call for the banning of fracking in Colorado. The measure would simply keep new wells farther away from homes and schools, expanding the distance from a 500-foot minimum to 2,500 feet.

Yet, the industry’s efforts to defeat Proposition 112 are moving into the realm of dirty politics. Westword reported Thursday that in a last-ditch attempt to defeat the measure before November 6, natural gas giant Noble Energy is blanketing Colorado television with election-focused political ads that it claims are outside the purview of all state campaign-finance laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision weakened regulation of federal campaign laws, but it preserved state statutes that require direct election expenditures to be disclosed. Noble Energy’s advertisements explicitly urge Coloradans to vote against the ballot measure, but the company has declared that such ads are not governed by state campaign-finance or disclosure laws, according to Westword.

However, Brendan Fisher of the Campaign Legal Center told Westword that while Colorado law requires certain disclosures by groups that are spending to influence candidate elections, those same requirements may not apply to ballot measures like Proposition 112.

The industry’s spending of million of dollars appears to be working. Polls show the final vote on the proposition is going to be extremely close, according to supporters of the proposition.

“Detractors label the setback measure as extreme. But what is more extreme, expanded setbacks or neighborhoods infested with heavy industry?” Quentin Young, an editorial writer for the Boulder Daily Camera, emphasized in a recent editorial. “Proposition 112 is the people’s response to an unresponsive government.”

Celebrities have also weighed in on the pro-proposition side. Actor and environmental activist Mark Ruffalo volunteered to narrate a short video in favor of expanding the setbacks in the state.

And this week, Conservation Colorado, the largest conservation organization in the state, endorsed the Yes on Prop 112 campaign. The campaign has also received a wide variety of endorsements from faith-based organizations, youth groups, healthcare groups, local businesses, and prominent elected officials.

While supporters of the ballot initiative argue that it will improve the health and safety of residents, pro-industry regulators at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission say it will limit their ability to drill for oil and gas.

The commission found that increasing the distance between wells and homes could put as much as 85 percent of private and state land off limits for new wells. But other more neutral experts believe that that number is far too high. A university researcher, for example, found that companies could still access oil and gas by drilling horizontally underneath homes and schools.

“The recent advent of horizontal drilling, some subsurface resources beneath the 2500’ buffer may be reachable from within the 15% available surface area,” Peter Maniloff, an assistant professor in the division of economics and business at the Colorado School of Mines, wrote in a research note released this month. Maniloff found that 42 percent of non-federal subsurface minerals would be accessible to the oil and gas industry if the ballot measure passed.

There is little doubt that Proposition 112 would limit fossil fuel extraction in many populated areas of the state. “But, at least in growing Front Range neighborhoods, that’s the point,” Young explained in his recent editorial.

Industry advocates, like John Elway, warn the state will lose many jobs if the proposition wins. But Colorado enjoys a diverse, vibrant economy and “it’s not at all certain that a diminished extraction industry would devastate the economy as a whole, particularly if green energy opportunity expand,” Young wrote.


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