Battle Over Fracking Poses Threat to Colorado Democrats
By JACK HEALY
DENVER — An impassioned national debate over the oil-production
technique known as fracking is edging toward the ballot box in
Colorado, opening an election-year rift between moderate,
energy-friendly Democrats and environmentalists who want to rein in
drilling or give local communities the power to outlaw it altogether.
If they make the ballot in November, an array of proposals will be
among the first in the nation to ask a state’s voters to sharply limit
energy development. Some measures would keep drilling as far as a
half-mile from Colorado homes. Others would give individual
communities the right to ban fracking.
The ballot measures reflect the anxieties that have accompanied a
drilling boom across the West. As drilling sites are built closer to
playgrounds and suburban homes in communities along Colorado’s
northern plains, residents and environmental groups have called for
more regulation and have pushed for moratoriums on drilling.
But in a bellwether state like Colorado, where views on drilling vary
as much as the geography, the measures could ignite an all-out battle
involving oil companies, business groups and conservationists that
pulls in millions in outside money, sets off a rush of campaign ads
and spawns lawsuits for years to come. That is why Gov. John W.
Hickenlooper and other Democratic leaders are working feverishly on a
compromise that would give communities more control of energy
development in their backyards while keeping the fracking issue off
Political strategists say that an election-year fracking fight has the
potential to hurt vulnerable Democrats, forcing them to take a stance
that could either anger environmental voters or draw fire from the oil
and gas industry.
“This is a fight within the Democratic Party,” said Floyd Ciruli, an
independent political analyst in Denver. For prominent Democrats, he
said, “this is dangerous. It might turn off environmental forces. It
will create a tremendous amount of noise between the Democratic
establishment and its rank and file.”
Late last week, Mr. Hickenlooper’s office announced it had reached a
compromise with two major oil-and-gas companies and Representative
Jared Polis, a millionaire Democrat who has been a strong supporter of
the ballot measures.
Mr. Polis became a self-proclaimed poster boy against fracking last
year when a red-and-white drilling rig sprouted near his weekend home
in Weld County, and he has argued that communities should have a vote
on whether they want to become part of the oil boom. But he said he
would withdraw his support for the fracking ballot measures if the
state legislature can pass the compromise bill as it stands in a
For now, it is uncertain whether Mr. Hickenlooper’s deal will become a reality.
The Colorado Petroleum Association said it opposed the compromise, and
groups representing ranchers, farmers and home builders have raised
concerns about the bill. Some who oppose fracking said they would
still push ahead with a measure to put local control on the ballot, no
matter what happens in the legislature.
The issue is already shadowing a tight race for Senate that Colorado
Democrats had once hoped would be a comfortable victory.
For weeks, Representative Cory Gardner, a Republican, has criticized
the Democratic incumbent, Mark Udall, for not disavowing the proposed
ballot measures, saying they would kill jobs and cripple an energy
boom that has financed schools and aided local economies.
Despite his support for renewable energy, Mr. Udall has said he
believes that fracking — the underground injection of millions of
gallons of water and sand to release oil and gas in the earth — can be
done safely. But he has avoided taking a position on the proposed
ballot measures. A spokesman said that Mr. Udall hoped the two sides
could reach some legislative deal that would avoid a ballot fight.
The politics of fracking have yet to be tested across a state that
cherishes its mountain streams and aspen forests, but where the oil
and gas industry claims to support more than 50,000 jobs and $29.6
billion in economic activity.
Five communities along the Front Range have voted to ban the practice,
which prompted lawsuits by the oil and gas industry and the state. In
aQuinnipiac University poll of Colorado voters last November, a slim
majority — 51 percent — said they supported fracking. Only 34 percent
of those surveyed said it was unsafe or not very safe, while 56
percent said it was very or somewhat safe.
Putting fracking to a vote, Mr. Hickenlooper said, would unleash an
“armed conflict” on the airwaves and could result in “economic chaos”
for the energy industry and even the state as a whole. “It’s like
going to a surgery, and all you’ve got is a pair of scissors and a
hacksaw,” Mr. Hickenlooper said. “It’s a blunt response to what’s a
As a former oil geologist who supports energy development in Colorado
— he once drank fracking fluid — Mr. Hickenlooper has long had a
touchy relationship with some environmental advocates. He passed
strict rules on gas leaks from well sites and storage tanks, but he
has also been publicly heckled by those who oppose fracking.
He said he was trying to find some thin strip of common ground between
environmentalists and homeowners in Colorado’s energy belt, and the
companies that own the rights to stores of minerals buried thousands
of feet underground.
“If we’re going to respect private property we’re going to have to
respect the rights of mineral leaseholders,” he said. “They have
rights, too, and how do we balance their rights against the rights of
people living in their homes?”
A draft of the proposed compromise would give local governments the
power to regulate noise from oil and gas development and impose bigger
setbacks from homes than the 500-foot buffers currently required. It
would also let communities write their own, stricter health, safety
and environmental standards. The local rules could not prevent energy
companies from reaching the minerals underground.
Across Colorado, leading Democrats hope to avoid finding out how the
public’s views translate at the ballot box. Senator Michael Bennet has
been urging a compromise, and a litany of officials including former
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former Denver mayor and a former
Democratic governor have spoken out against a statewide fracking vote.
“I’m concerned about putting something like this in the Constitution,”
a former Democratic governor, Bill Ritter, said. “It’s very hard to
ever change. If it’s a ban or a moratorium, you wind up doing great
harm to your local economy. It’s a lose-lose situation if it goes to