Colorado’s political establishment has been working overtime to thwart an election day showdown over proposals to give communities the power to control oil and gas drilling, but local opposition appears to be gaining strength.
In a poll taken in May, but not released until this past weekend by supporters of two proposed ballot measures, Colorado voters strongly supported requiring oil and gas wells to be set back at least a half mile from residences and giving cities and towns the ability to enact stricter controls on oil and gas development than the state allows.
The setback proposal was supported 64 percent to 21 percent, and even by 56-35 after respondents were read arguments against the measure. The local control measure, which establishes a so-called environmental bill of rights, was supported 64-27 and then 52-34 after arguments against it were presented.
The poll results were released as a furious battle is being waged in Colorado over whether the festering issue of local control of fracking and drilling will be decided at the ballot box in November, a battle that is being waged in Colorado neighborhoods and on the airwaves. A handful of Colorado communities have already approved bans or moratoria on fracking, and their ability to do so is likely to be decided in court. With that backdrop, supporters of local control are aiming to amend the state constitution in the November election.
Proponents of the two control measures have until August 4 to collect 86,105 valid signatures to get on the fall ballot. Yesterday, supporters of a third measure, the most sweeping proposed for consideration, abandoned their effort to get a “community rights” initiative on the ballot. It would have allowed communities to ban virtually any industrial activity.
Meanwhile, Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former oil and gas industry engineer, is still pushing to find a legislative solution to the local control dispute that would keep the issue from dominating the fall election. Some Democrats fear that massive spending by the oil and gas industry could hurt the re-election chances of Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall, both Democrats. In a new NBC News/Marist poll released Tuesday Udall has a seven point lead over his GOP challenger, Rep. Cory Gardner while Hickenlooper has a six point lead over his Republican opponent, Bob Beauprez.
As the prospects of a compromise fade, a bipartisan pro-business group that fears local control measures will hurt the state’s economy is filling the airwaves with ads that feature two former governors — Democrat Roy Romer and Republican Bill Owens — arguing for the defeat of the ballot measures.
“Environmentalists can turn Colorado into a national model,” Romer says in the ad, “not by banning fracking but by making it as good as we can.”
Though Colorado has taken important steps in improving its regulation of oil and gas development — including the nation’s first rules on methane releases — a huge boom in drilling in recent years along the Front Range north of Denver has sparked concerns about water contamination, air pollution, and the proximity of energy development to residential neighborhoods.
The state now has nearly 35,000 oil and gas wells, and in 2013 broke a 60-year-old record for oil production, producing 64 million barrels.
According to the Center for Western Priorities, Colorado had 495 spills related to oil and gas activities in 2013, and in 22 percent of those cases there was at least some contamination of water. Air pollution has also been a significant concern, with a study at the University of Colorado finding that more than half of the pollution tied to ozone is tied to oil and gas production in an area of heavy energy development.
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