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Study shows oil and gas industry wields ‘meta power,’ but Colorado residents are fighting back

Citizens who live near energy infrastructure often feel disempowered, study says.

A large drilling operation sits close to housing subdivisions  2017 in Erie, Colorado.   CREDIT: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images
A large drilling operation sits close to housing subdivisions 2017 in Erie, Colorado. CREDIT: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

An initiative that will appear on the ballot in Colorado next month marks the first time that voters anywhere in the U.S. will have the power to control the distances between oil and gas drilling infrastructure and homes and schools in their communities.

The ballot initiative — known as Proposition 112 — would require that new oil and gas projects be set back at least 2,500 feet from occupied buildings. The state’s current limits are 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools.

Getting the initiative on the ballot was a major accomplishment for Coloradans concerned about the health and safety impacts of oil and gas drilling in their communities. In most major oil and gas producing states, citizens who live near energy infrastructure often feel disempowered and exploited due to the political and corporate forces stacked against them, according to a new study from Colorado State University’s Sociology Department.

The study, titled “The Right to Resist or a Case of Injustice? Meta-Power in the Oil and Gas Fields” was published in the October 2018 issue of the academic journal Social Forces. Co-authors Stephanie Malin and Tara Opsal, two professors of sociology at Colorado State University, contend the oil and gas industry “wields enormous power — meta power — in decisions related to [unconventional oil and gas] production, which shrinks space for authentic participation on the part of the stakeholders such as community members.”

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The professors define meta power as the process through which certain actors create and control the rules of the game. The question becomes “when” and not “‘whether” unconventional oil and gas production can occur, they write.

In most states, the power differential between the industry and ordinary citizens “allows the industry to control the structure or rules of the game, the form of the game, and its terms of negotiation,” the study says.

The professors interviewed more than 100 citizens in Colorado and Pennsylvania who have negotiated private leases giving oil and gas companies access to their land or their minerals. The vast majority of the participants in the study, for example, reported experiences of “procedural injustice” with companies in lease negotiations or enforcing lease terms related to oil and gas production on their land.

Procedural justice is the idea of fairness in the processes that resolve disputes or allocate resources.

The researchers found that the public is typically marginalized from playing an equal role in making collective decisions about whether, when, and where oil and gas activity takes place. In heavily drilled states such as Colorado and Pennsylvania, the states “take a variety of steps to limit the space for authentic public participation in zoning or regulatory decisions,” the authors write in the report.

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Anne Lee Foster, spokesperson for Colorado Rising, the leading organization behind the ballot initiative, told ThinkProgress that, “As a result of feeling stonewalled and feeling exploited — all of the things that the study details very well — Colorado communities decided to use the ballot initiative process as a way to balance the scales and try and take the power back to some degree.”

About 85 percent of the surface area of non-federal lands in Colorado would become off-limits to new oil and gas drilling if the initiative passes, according to a July 2 report by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, an agency that both promotes and regulates oil and gas.

Drilling on public lands, which cover about 35 percent Colorado, would not be affected by the proposition, which would limit only new oil and gas wells. Colorado currently has about 55,000 active oil and gas wells.

When oil and gas drilling in Colorado entered a major expansion period more than a decade ago, residents began fighting for better protections against the industry. But they quickly found out they were essentially excluded from the oil and gas siting process.

Passage of the ballot initiative would finally shift the balance of power in the direction of the citizens of Colorado. At the very least, it would provide local governments and Coloradans more say over where drilling occurs and enhance the rights of those who live near these sites, according to study co-authors Malin and Opsal.

Foster of Colorado Rising said many of the interviews in the study were similar to conversations she’s had with people who have found themselves unable to obtain enough information to understand how to get a fair agreement with the oil and gas companies.

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One community, which had the financial resources to hire legal counsel and form coalitions with neighbors, still found itself at a disadvantage to the industry. “It was like having a second job,” one rancher told the Colorado State University researchers. “We did absolutely everything we could as private citizens to mitigate the impacts and in the end, it just — it was futile.”

Decisions about oil and gas production typically result from private negotiations that occur among permitting agencies, corporations, and landowners, to the exclusion of members of the public who will be dramatically impacted by the industrial activity.

“This trend to private contracts marks an important shift in the way communities engage with planning energy projects, moving these processes from public spaces and deliberations to those defined by market-based, individualized, private participation via leased agreement processes,” the study says.

And the battle over Colorado’s ballot initiative is heating up, pitting citizens against corporations.

Opponents of the ballot initiative have turned to Gale Norton, the scandal-plagued Interior secretary under President George W. Bush, to appear in an advertisement urging Coloradans to vote against the initiative. The advertisement is sponsored by Protect Colorado, a political action committee created to promote the state’s oil and gas industry.

Another group, Colorado Rising Action, was formed in June to oppose the ballot initiative. Michael Fields, its executive director, was formerly a senior official with Americans for Prosperity, a group run by the Koch Brothers, according to Westword. Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, formed in 2013, is headed by a senior officials with Anadarko Petroleum, one of the top oil and gas producers in the state.

Residents may be confused by Colorado Rising Action, whose name is very similar to Colorado Rising, which is in favor of increasing setbacks for oil and gas drilling. Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, or CRED, has a name that is very similar to Coloradans Resisting Extreme Energy Development, or CREED, an anti-fracking group that is now defunct but was formed prior to the oil and gas-affiliated group.

Industry-funded groups and the Colorado Farm Bureau, which represents farmers, ranchers and other agricultural interests, succeeded in getting their own initiative on the ballot in response to the Proposition 112 efforts to increase setbacks. Known as Amendment 74, the measure would force any city or county government that limits drilling to compensate property owners if new setback rules were to lower property values or reduce revenue from fracking leases.

The state’s oil and gas industry has already spent millions on advertisements opposing the proposition. The industry-funded groups are paying huge sums for advertisements that run regularly on television.

Colorado Rising, however, doesn’t have the funds to pay for pro-proposition television advertisements. Instead, the campaign for Proposition 112 is attempting to counter the industry with online videos.

On Wednesday, the group released its first campaign video in favor of the proposition.

The video shows scenes from an April 2017 natural gas fire at a home near a drilling site in Erie, Colorado that killed two people. Investigators traced the cause of the explosion to an uncapped flowline that had been leaking non-odorous natural gas into a family’s home for months. The gas came from a nearby well owned by Anadarko Petroleum.

In response to industry advertisements showing bucolic scenes in the state, Colorado Rising’s pro-proposition video says: “Coloradans live in the real world, not an oil and gas advertisement.”