Municipalities energized for fracking votes

The Colorado Statesman

President Barack Obama’s June climate change declaration that “Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction” resonates in Colorado where a surge of skepticism to the oil and gas industry is likely to play out at local polls this November.

Five Colorado communities — Fort Collins, Loveland, Lafayette, Boulder and Broomfield — are expected to vote in November on whether to impose a ban or enact lengthy moratoriums on the controversial hydraulic fracturing drilling process.

Fort Collins, Broomfield and Boulder voters will be asked to approve five-year moratoriums, while Loveland voters will be asked to approve a two-year moratorium. Lafayette voters will be asked to approve a ban on new oil and gas activities.

Drilling activities across Colorado have set off a wave of fear that technologies such as hydraulic fracturing could cause environmental and health concerns.

The Loveland initiative has yet to be placed on the ballot, while the other four efforts are already certified.

So-called “fracking” employs the pressure of a fluid — usually sand, water and an assortment of chemicals — to increase extraction rates. But concerns have grown as the process has entered more populated areas of Colorado’s Front Range that it can contaminate water, add to congestion and air pollution, and drain natural resources, such as precious water.

One Colorado community, Longmont, already banned the controversial process by a vote of nearly 60 percent. That vote last year came after the Longmont City Council enacted strict rules and regulations beyond those of the state.

Longmont has been sued twice for its actions. First the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission sued, suggesting that the municipality overstepped its authority. Then the Colorado Oil and Gas Association filed a separate lawsuit against Longmont for banning fracking altogether.

Despite the ongoing court challenges, other cities might elect to follow Longmont’s lead. The Lafayette City Council last month passed a three-year moratorium on licensing new oil and gas activities in the city. And voters in all five communities could take measures into their own hands. But already the cities are facing pushback from the industry.

Failed protests in both Lafayette and Loveland, supported by the COGA, sought to invalidate petition signatures gathered by proponents of the moratoriums.

The challenge in Lafayette, filed by Lafayette resident Jon Hydeman, a hydraulic fracturing operating assistant, attempted to have signatures disqualified for not meeting a state requirement to include summary of ballot language on the petitions circulated.

The protest in Loveland, filed by Loveland resident Larry Sarner, suggested that the petition drive violated several requirements of the state’s municipal election code, including the single-subject rule, using retroactive language and miscalculating registered voters.

In both cases, the respective city clerks have tossed the protests, suggesting that each initiative satisfied all of the municipal requirements.

Lafayette City Clerk Susan Koster said the protest there sought to amend the municipal home rule charter, which is a right solely reserved to voters. She added that the city’s home rule charter prevails.

“The procedures set out in the Municipal Home Rule Act of 1971 are specific to citizen petitions for amendments of home rule charters, and are comprehensive,” wrote Koster. “The petitioning provisions, which are specific to charter amendments process control over the general petitioning requirements pertaining to the right of initiatives.”

But Hydeman believes the conversation is of vital importance, which is why he wanted to clarify the validity of the petition signatures. For him, the topic is also personal. A ban on fracking could put his job with Halliburton at risk.

“If this ban passes, I very likely won’t have the opportunity to work in my own community,” said Hydeman. “That’s why I wanted to help and I’m proud to be involved.”

In Loveland last week, City Clerk Terry Andrews tossed the protest, but acknowledged that there could be additional issues that need to be addressed by the courts concerning conflicts with state law if voters approve the moratorium.

“These are issues for the courts to decide if the proposed ordinance is hereafter adopted by the Loveland City Council or Loveland’s voters,” wrote Andrews.

On Tuesday, however, the Loveland City Council rejected placing the question on the November ballot after Sarner filed a protest in Larimer County District Court. The council voted 5-4 to take no action on the ordinance until the courts decide.

Loveland Mayor Cecil Gutierrez voted along with councilors Joan Shaffer, Ralph Trenary and Phil Farley to place the ordinance on the ballot. But council members John Fogle, Daryle Klassen, Hugh McKean, Dave Clark and Chauncey Taylor rejected sending the initiative to voters.

The council had until Sept. 6 to take action on the proposed initiative. Because there is no timeline on Sarner’s appeal, it is likely that the initiative will head to a special election if the courts uphold the petition’s validity.

The oil and gas association maintains that the petition drives are disingenuous and filled with conflicts and violations.

“Activists challenge the industry to work honestly and transparently and we ask the same of them,” explained Tisha Schuller, president and chief executive of COGA. “COGA and its members are dedicated to fostering informed and honest debate about energy issues in the state. Poorly crafted and insufficient ballot measures do a disservice to the communities they impact. We welcome the debate on energy but will continue opposing efforts that hamper the ability of citizens to make informed choices.”

Sarner, a longtime Loveland resident of 36 years, said the fracking debate is too significant not to seek clarity from the courts in order to proceed.

“This important issue requires an honest and open debate to resolve fairly,” he said. “Judging from the problems with the measure and the petitions which are contained in my complaint, this does not bode well for the debate being either honest or open.”

But Sharon Carlisle, lead proponent with Protect Our Loveland, said she is prepared to sue Longmont over the council’s vote not to place the initiative on the November ballot. She says she is furious that the city would block the citizens’ fundamental right to vote.

“Any community that is faced with somebody that is taking away their right to vote, that is pretty significant; that is significant for anybody,” said Carlisle. “If this isn’t challenged — and believe me, one way or the other, I’ll make sure that it is — this could set a scary precedent for any other community trying to go forward with a citizen-based petition initiative because if this can be used as an excuse to keep it off the ballot the way it’s being used here, that’s a very big threat.”

The oil and gas association points out that it did not lodge the complaints. But it has been supporting them through legal assistance and media advisories alerting the press to its involvement.

“We have the right to vote as far as I know, and COGA has now paid for us not to have the right to vote,” lamented Carlisle. “COGA will make sure that we go from court to court to court; from challenge to challenge to challenge, to make sure we never get to the ballot.”

Doug Flanders, spokesman for COGA, said regardless of the outcome, his organization is optimistic that Colorado voters will see it from the industry’s side.

“Coloradans realize complex matters take more than a sound bite to solve, and that a ban is not a plan,” he said. “Banning how we produce a product we all use every minute of our lives is damaging to the Colorado brand of compromise and reasonableness.”

The Broomfield City Council seems to agree with the industry, approving an agreement last month with an operator to allow drilling within city limits. The council voted unanimously to approve a memorandum of understanding with Sovereign Oil and Gas to allow drilling at more than 20 wells.

But the council also recently backed more than 30 tough new rules and regulations that are separate of the state’s mandates, providing the city with some of the strictest oil and gas guidelines in Colorado.

Still, proponents of the moratorium in Broomfield say the council should have waited until voters had a chance to weigh in this November.

“In allowing fracking to commence, the Broomfield City Council will be irresponsibly allowing this dangerous, industrial activity to take place before Broomfield citizens have the right to vote on the proposal,” declared Laura Fronckiewicz, with Our Broomfield. “Citizens believe this is a flagrant disregard of the democratic process.”

Our Broomfield this week settled a lawsuit with the city over what they determined to be an unfair ballot title. They had wanted the city to use a title that included “public safety and welfare,” but the city removed that language.

After working with a mediator, the city and Our Broomfield reached an agreement, though it does not include “public safety and welfare.” But the new title does eliminate any mention of “prohibiting the owners of property rights… from extracting their property…”

The new title reads, “Shall Broomfield’s Home Rule Charter be amended for five years so as to prohibit the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil, gas, or other hydrocarbons within the City and County of Broomfield and to prohibit the disposal or open pit storage of solid or liquid wastes created in connection with the hydraulic fracturing process?”

Climate change

The debate in Colorado is a microcosm of a larger conversation across the nation on climate change, as well as on impacts to health and the environment. Fracking has become the centerpiece, but a host of other issues play a role.

President Obama in June reignited passions when he outlined a climate action plan that seeks to limit carbon pollution from power plants, improve energy efficiency and boost clean energy investments.

“The question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it is too late,” Obama said at Georgetown University.

“As a president, as a father and as an American, I am here to say, we need to act,” he continued, addressing students and observers. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”

Local public health advocates and conservationists hailed the president’s bold statements, suggesting that in Colorado, a climate action plan could improve the health of Coloradans and protect the state’s ski industry. Carbon pollution is feared to reduce Colorado’s snowpack and increase the propensity and intensity of forest fires and drought.

“Our company, community and state rely on a healthy snowpack in our winter months to sustain Colorado’s outdoor recreation and tourist economy,” said Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability for Aspen Ski Company.

“Colorado is a special place that is already feeling the heat, drought and fires that could become the new normal without a unified response,” added David Ellenberger, a regional outreach coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation in Boulder.

Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, who represents a district that includes vast wilderness and ski resorts, said the president’s plan is a “significant step forward.”

“Colorado is on the front lines for everyday impacts, seen through the beetle kill, drought and wildfires,” he said.

But some in the energy industry are concerned that the president’s plan fails to recognize natural gas. The Western Energy Alliance, formerly the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, said natural gas is the “true source of American success.”

“The reason America is the only industrialized country to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1995 levels is because of increased natural gas electricity generation, not because of increased wind and solar energy as the president claims,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance. “Yet the president fails to even acknowledge the reason for America’s success.”

The industry is fearful that Obama’s plan could lead to burdensome regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency, which could hurt the industry and restrict states from regulating themselves.

At a recent congressional luncheon hosted by the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, Republican U.S. Reps. Cory Gardner of Yuma, Mike Coffman of Aurora and Scott Tipton of Cortez all expressed concern with offering additional powers to the EPA. The industry appears to agree.

“Rather than new federal regulations, [the president] should be encouraging more natural gas development and approving liquefied natural gas licenses,” continued Sgamma. “By stubbornly repressing exports, the president is standing in the way of a global solution to a global problem.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com