As Colorado grapples with unprecedented wildfires, some officials in the state are focusing their priorities elsewhere. During a rally in support of fossil fuels on Thursday, state officials argued that support for fracking should transcend party lines as they pushed for new oil and gas development.
Energy companies hosted an “Energy Proud” event in front of the state Capitol building in Denver, according to Western Wire, drawing a few thousand people to the gathering. Speakers included Gale Norton, a former Interior Department secretary and former Colorado attorney general, in addition to State Rep. James Coleman (D-Denver) and Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton, who is a Republican candidate for governor.
“There are over 200,000 people in Colorado that work in the energy industry, many of which are here today,” Coleman told the crowd, emphasizing bipartisan support for oil and gas. “And I’m proud to say that when I think about my grandfather, and when I see all of you, I don’t see blue, I don’t see red, I see hard-working Americans, hard-working Coloradans.”
Norton went a step further, calling fossil fuel workers “revolutionaries” thanks to their efforts in shifting U.S. reliance on foreign oil.
“Today we no longer are hostage to foreign countries controlling our oil,” she said. “Today we control our own destiny. You should truly be energy proud.”
The officials were joined by energy industry figures, including Chris Wright, the CEO of Liberty, who argued in favor of fossil fuel development.
“The modern world is not possible without oil and gas,” said Wright. “Together, with dramatic advances in human liberty, the mass production of oil and gas has improved the human condition in ways that would have been simply unimaginable to our ancestors.”
Seemingly no mention was made connecting increased fossil fuel production with climate change or its impacts, which scientists have said include more severe weather events like wildfires.
The rally was sparked largely by concern over Initiative 97, a proposed ballot measure that state regulators say would bar oil extraction on more than 85 percent of the state’s non-federal lands.
The initiative, which supporters are working to put on the midterm ballot, would change the current established setback for oil and gas wells from 500 feet for homes and 1,000 feet for schools to 2,500 feet, a move that would impact more than four out of every five acres of land not owned by the government, according to the Denver Post.
Oil and gas advocates have decried the measure, saying it would devastate Colorado’s job market and hurt the state’s economy. But anti-fracking groups say Initiative 97 is necessary in a state where fossil fuel extraction poses a deadly threat to both human health and the environment.
According to a Denver Post investigation, in the eight months following a deadly April 2017 gas explosion in the town of Firestone, at least a dozen explosions and fires have been associated with industry pipelines along Colorado’s Front Range. That area is part of the Southern Rocky Mountains.
Proponents of Initiative 97 need 98,000 valid signatures in total if the measure is to be added to the ballot. The deadline for signatures is August 6. If adopted, it would keep fossil fuel projects farther away from homes and schools.
Dispute over the ballot initiative, however, comes in the midst of a deadly streak of wildfires across the western United States. Colorado had the highest number of wildfires in the country at one point in July, forcing residents in the western part of the state to flee to safety.
While wildfires are considered normal in the west, scientists and climate experts have pointed to increased winds and record-breaking heat as an underlying factor for the severity of this year’s wildfire season. Those shifts are in no small part thanks to climate change, experts say.
And climate change is greatly worsened by increased use of fossil fuels, which generate greenhouse gases and contribute to global warming. Fracking itself also releases methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.
But discussions linking fossil fuels to climate change were absent on Thursday, as officials rallied on behalf of oil and gas interests. Stapleton, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, told Western Wire that the issue was one of “jobs” and “economic opportunity”, seemingly in a nod to Initiative 97 and efforts like it.
“We need to make sure we stand up for an industry that is responsible and regulated and is willing to be responsible and regulated, but is also one of the vital industries towards the economic future that all of us want to have in Colorado for future generations,” Stapleton said.
Politicians have widely remained silent about the connection between the recent wildfires and climate change. Democrats in particular have argued in favor of allowing the public to draw connections themselves, seemingly in an effort to depoliticize the issue. Several California lawmakers, however, acknowledged the link earlier this week following questions from the media and pressure from advocacy groups.