Voters in four Colorado cities will decide this Election Day whether or not to ban fracking within their communities, putting the state at the center of a fight playing out across the country.
Broomfield, Fort Collins and Boulder voters are considering moratoriums on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is a process that uses a high-pressure stream of water, chemicals and sand to break through shale rock and tap into oil and gas reserves. Another measure in Lafayette would be a complete ban on fracking. All four cities are on the Niobrara Shale, one of the largest oil and gas reserves in the United States.
Last year, the city of Longmont, Colo., voted to ban fracking. The Colorado Oil & Gas Association and the administration of Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) are now challenging that ban in court, arguing that it violates state law. Hickenlooper has said that the state will sue any municipality that attempts to ban fracking.
Both environmentalists and the energy industry are watching the four latest ballot measures with interest. "The mere fact that they're on the ballot sends a signal that citizens are concerned about the state's inability or unwillingness to thoroughly and effectively regulate oil and gas drilling, and fracking," said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado. "Win or lose, I think they're sending a clear signal that we need to do more to protect our air, our land, our water, and the communities that are being impacted."
Colorado is just one of many states where the fracking fight is reaching the local level. In New York, the town of Dryden passed a zoning ordinance against fracking that gas drillers have sued to overturn. Food & Water Watch has tallied almost 400 local initiatives against fracking nationwide.
Energy interests have spent more than a half-million dollars on a campaign to fight the Colorado ballot measures. "This is fundamentally an assault on the energy industry in Colorado," said Don Beezley, a former state representative and the cochair of the Broomfield Balanced Energy Coalition, which opposes the moratorium. "This is basically a test. The goal, if they're successful with the local bans, is to attempt statewide bans."
Beezley described Broomfield, a socially moderate, fiscally conservative city, as a probable bellwether in determining where Coloradans stand on fracking. "It's sort of a reflection of the state," said Beezley, who predicted that residents would vote the measure down at the polls on Tuesday.
A number of the groups working to pass the ballot measures have called for a complete ban on fracking in the state, including Frack Free Colorado and Protect Our Colorado, a coalition launched earlier this year, that includes local churches and environmental groups, national environmental organizations like Food & Water Watch and 350.org, and the outdoor retailer Patagonia.
"They want to ban hydraulic fracturing in Colorado," said B.J. Nikkel, a former state legislator now working as a consultant for iKue Strategies on behalf of the industry-backed campaign against the measures. "These ballot initiatives are stepping stones for these groups. They have used the help of national organizations to come in and try to use Colorado as a testing ground for these issues." Nikkel argued that fracking opponents have been waging a "scare tactic campaign" against fracking that has "freaked out" local voters.
Russell Mendell, statewide director at Frack Free Colorado, said that the group is certainly hoping that these four cities are just the start. "We're hoping to build upon these four ballot initiatives for a statewide movement to move us from fracking to renewable energy," said Mendell. He pointed to the money the industry has spent against the measures, noting that it "leads us to believe they see larger implications for this election as well."
At the state level, Hickenlooper, who claims to have drunk fracking fluids, has been largely supportive of oil and gas drilling in the state. His administration is currently considering new rules on emissions from drilling operations, but environmental groups worry that those regulations won't be tough enough to counter concerns. (A new draft of the rules is supposed to be released in the coming days, but an early draft was leaked last week.)
Dan Grossman, the director of the Environmental Defense Fund's Rocky Mountain Regional Office, argued that the ballot measures are the outgrowth of perceived failures to adequately regulate fracking at the state and federal levels. "I think it is just testimony to the larger theme, which is the industry has a significant confidence problem with people in the state of Colorado," said Grossman. "By agreeing to stronger measures that are protective of land, air, and water, they can avoid things like ballot initiatives to ban fracking."