Colorado voters will get the chance to decide on new restrictions on oil and gas drilling in the state this November, sparking what’s expected to be a tense battle between industry and environmentalists.
The controversial Initiative 97 successfully garnered enough signatures on Wednesday to qualify for the ballot. The initiative seeks to increase the distance that fossil fuel extraction sites must maintain from homes, schools, parks, and some wildlife areas. The measure would increase the setback to 2,500 feet.
Currently, oil and gas operations are allowed to take place just 500 feet away from homes and 1,000 feet from schools. Colorado’s petroleum lobby argues that the measure would restrict 85 percent of all new oil and gas projects on non-federal lands — a change they say would devastate the industry.
Those supporting the ballot initiative, however, point to safety and health concerns. Last year, two people were killed after a house explosion caused by a leaky natural gas line that wasn’t capped properly.
And a study out in April by the Colorado School of Public Heath found that those living closer to fossil fuel operations may have a higher exposure to dangerous carcinogens.
Residents also worry about the impacts on schoolchildren. In March, people living in Colorado’s Front Range fought the construction of a major oil and gas drilling site set to be built near a public school attended mostly by low-income students of color.
In 2014 and 2016, similar ballot initiative attempts failed. This time around, the battle is already brewing, with industry and political incumbents aligned against environmental advocates.
A lot is at stake for the industry. Colorado is the fifth largest gas producer and seventh largest oil producer in the U.S. Should the ballot initiative succeed, many expect it would galvanize the anti-fracking movement in other states.
And the industry already appears to be putting up a fight. Earlier this month, a statement was issued by anti-fracking group Colorado Rising — the group behind Initiative 97 — claiming that “harassers were paid to intimidate petition circulators and discourage voters from signing” the petition to get the initiative on the ballot.
The group alleges that oil company Anadarko Petroleum asked employees to report sightings of Initiative 97 canvassers.
And it’s not just activists that are being targeted. Journalists, too, are in the industry’s crosshairs. Also in August, NBC-affiliated station KUSA in Denver reported that the oil and gas industry had set up a website called the Energy Accountability Project where it compiles “dossiers” on individual journalists whose coverage they don’t like — these are searchable by name online.
“But it is anything but accountable,” the news report on August 8 said. “The whole thing is anonymous.”
Leading up to November, the ballot initiative will likely be debated in the governor’s race. Republican candidate Walker Stapleton supports the oil and gas industry while his Democratic opponent Jared Polis wants to promote the use of more renewable energy.