When Rep. Jared Polis found that a 100-foot tower and a drilling operation had been built last year across the road from his weekend home, he told his story on YouTube, predicting that by fighting for “sensible regulations” he would become the anti-fracking “poster boy.”
That could come true if two Polis-backed ballot measures to restrict fracking in Colorado qualify for the November ballot. If proponents have collected enough valid signatures by Monday, the state’s voters will decide on one initiative requiring all new oil and gas wells to be set back 2,000 feet from any home or school — a major expansion of the current buffer requirement of 500 feet — and a second that would give communities more control over drilling by adding an “environmental bill of rights” to the state’s constitution.
Polis’ proposed ballot measures have touched off a furious battle in this state, where the number of active wells has doubled in the last decade, creating thousands of jobs in what has become a $29.5-billion industry. Among those who do not share his views: two fellow Democrats in reelection races for governor and U.S. Senate. Those races would be far more unpredictable with the measures on the ballot.
Polis said he was prompted to act after learning that thousands of constituents faced experiences similar to his own in Weld County. The quest to find “some sense of balance” in fracking regulations, he said, has become a pressing issue. Polis, who is independently wealthy, has not disclosed how much he plans to spend on the ballot measures or how much he has put in so far.
At least nine other states have enacted regulations governing fracking, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and hundreds of bills to restrict the practice have been proposed in state legislatures across the country.
“People are worried about their health, their family’s health, water and surface spills,” Polis said. “The jobs this is costing, the damage to our economy, the damage to the quality of life, continues every day that we don’t have sensible regulations.”
Opponents argue that the two measures would amount to a backdoor ban on hydraulic fracturing, a technique in which water, sand and chemicals are injected into the ground at high pressure to extract oil and gas. Primed for the fight by the decision of five Colorado towns to ban fracking since 2012, the oil and gas industry and aligned business groups have vowed a vigorous campaign that is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars.
The anticipated flood of spending has made the initiatives the biggest wild cards in the November election, when Coloradans will also decide whether to reelect U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and Gov. John Hickenlooper, both Democrats.
The reason: Colorado’s views on fracking do not break neatly along party lines, and voters have been almost evenly divided.
The ballot measures “could have an impact on all sides,” said Craig Hughes, a Colorado political consultant who ran Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet’s winning campaign in 2010. “It’s too easy and simplistic to say it will help one side or the other.”
Several political experts said a get-out-the-vote program funded by wealthy opponents of the measures could turn out more white Republican men than a normal midterm election year, but could also motivate low-income Latino and African American voters who are concerned about the potential loss of jobs.
Complicating the ability to predict voter behavior is the fact that the intensity of sentiments about fracking tends to vary widely depending on how close voters live to wells. Residents in Weld County, where the concentration of wells is the highest, are often far more engaged, for example, than those in the more populous Denver suburbs.
Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist who once drank fracking fluid to show that it was “benign,” spent months trying to forge a compromise. When that failed, he vowed to fight the measures, which he said “risk thousands of jobs, billions of dollars in investment, and millions of dollars in tax revenue.”
The governor’s stance on oil and gas issues has angered some environmentalists, who view him as too closely aligned with the industry. That could cost him in the toss-up race against Republican Bob Beauprez.
In the Senate race, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner has accused Udall of failing to fight for Colorado jobs when he avoided taking a position on the ballot measures for months.
“If an energy ban is passed in Colorado, it will overnight wipe out 120,000 jobs, $12 billion of our economy, $1 billion of taxes that fund new roads and new schools,” Gardner said in an interview, drawing figures from a University of Colorado economic study.
Udall ultimately came out against the ballot measures, framing them as “one-size-fits-all restrictions.” He said Gardner was putting up “a straw man” by suggesting that he would stand in the way of energy development.
“Coloradans believe that we should not drill everywhere, but there are many places we should,” Udall said in an interview. “But there is a balance; we can protect jobs and we can protect our quality of life.”
As those debates play out on the campaign trail, activists on both sides are preparing for battle.
The Polis-backed group leading the signature drive, Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, has publicized the more than 495 spills that occurred in 2013. An analysis by the Denver Post last week showed that oil and gas spills are occurring at a rate of two a day this year, often without notification to residents.
“This industry is completely running roughshod over the state right now,” said Nick Passante, a spokesman for the signature group.
But opponents of the ballot measures say the spill data are being distorted for political gain. An industry-backed issue committee called Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy and Energy Independence is already running ads meant to dispel what they say are myths about fracking.
Spokeswoman Karen Crummy criticized “fear-mongering by environmentalists,” saying many Coloradans do not understand the practical effect of the two ballot measures. She noted, for example, that the state’s current 500-foot setback rule for wells affects an 18-acre area. Increasing that radius to 2,000 feet, she said, would affect a 288-acre area.
“There won’t be anyplace to really drill,” she said.
The other side disputes that analysis. The argument over who is doing more cherry-picking of the data will continue well into the fall, at great cost.
“I think people understand what’s at stake here,” said Dan Hopkins, spokesman for a business group known as Coloradans for Responsible Reform, which has reserved $8 million in television time against the ballot measures. “Over the next few months it will get even clearer.”