Big Oil spent big and won big in Washington and Colorado

The oil industry spent more than $60 million to kill two efforts to fight climate change.


Sweeping climate initiatives failed to pass in both Washington and Colorado on Tuesday following a record-breaking multi-million dollar opposition effort from the oil industry, which poured a staggering amount of money into campaigns opposing the initiatives.

Ballot Initiative 1631 (or I-1631) in Washington state had only 43.7 percent of the vote with 64 percent of precincts reporting by Wednesday morning. More than 56 percent of voters opted against the historic measure, which would have established a landmark carbon fee. Proposition 112 in Colorado saw similar numbers, with nearly 57 percent of voters rejecting the effort to establish a new minimum distance for oil, gas, and fracking projects.

For both measures, Tuesday night served as a test of the oil industry’s muscle.

I-1631 faced an outpouring of opposition from Big Oil which pitted itself against a deeply diverse coalition. A carbon “fee” (rather than a tax) thanks to Washington law, I-1631 would have been a historic feat. The initiative would have charged most polluters in Washington $15 for every ton of carbon dioxide released, with that amount set to increase by $2 every year.


The subsequent windfall would have been used to fund statewide efforts to expand public transportation and renewable energy, in addition to offering aid to communities hurt by fossil fuels or looking to move away from them. Not all companies were set to be included — Boeing, the state’s top employer, was off the hook, along with other industries that largely sell their products abroad. The aluminum manufacturer Alcoa and the Centralia coal plant, which is set to shut down in 2025, were also exempt.

Organizations and activists from labor, health, science, and social justice backgrounds all worked to craft the proposal’s language before lobbying hard for its success. A number of the initiative’s supporters told ThinkProgress prior to Tuesday that they felt I-1631 only stood a chance of passing because of the diverse group supporting it — giving the effort a chance to pass where repeated prior attempts have failed.

But they faced an uphill battle. “No on 1631,” formed by the Western States Petroleum Association, spent heavily in an effort to kill the carbon fee. The group reported more than $31 million in contributions prior to Tuesday, more than any other effort in Washington state history.

Virtually all of that money came from out-of-state oil companies, something “Yes on 1631” emphasized to ThinkProgress last month. BP America alone gave more than $9.5 million in an attempt to kill I-1631, which would directly impact the company.


In the lead-up to Tuesday night, No on 1631 ran at least 71 different ads on Facebook targeting the measure, in addition to a slew of television advertisements. According to Media Matters, between October 16 and October 29 alone, the group spent more than $1.1 million on digital advertising, most of which is believed to have gone to Facebook.

Support for I-1631 also raked in donations, albeit nowhere near as much as No on 1631. Thanks to hefty donations from organizations like the Nature Conservancy, proponents netted just under $16 million — a little more than half of the opposition’s total.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, Proposition 112 faced similar hurdles. The proposal would have increased the distance between fossil fuel extraction sites and homes, parks, schools, and some wildlife areas. Currently, oil and gas operations are allowed to come within 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools. Under Proposition 112, the setback would have been 2,500 feet.

Proposition 112 would have barred oil extraction on more than 85 percent of Colorado’s non-federal lands, something the oil and gas industry have argued would devastate the state’s economy. Colorado is the fifth largest gas producer and seventh largest oil producer in the United States.

Journalists and activists faced antagonism and intimidation throughout the course of the fight over Proposition 112, even as the oil industry ramped up efforts to prevent the proposal’s passage.


Protect Colorado, the group leading the opposition to Proposition 112, raised more than $36 million going into this week in an effort to defeat the proposal. By contrast, Colorado Rising — which supports Proposition 112 — raised just over $800,000.

As of Monday afternoon, Protect Colorado had taken in another $583,000, a donation made possible by the Colorado Petroleum Council. That amount brought the group’s total haul to over $41.5 million.

Those spending efforts ultimately paid off. Both initiatives failed to garner the votes necessary for passage, to the disappointment of green groups and activists. But at least in Washington, supporters indicated they were not willing to give up.

Mike Stevens, the state director of the Nature Conservancy, said that carbon fee proponents are already looking to craft a new bill for passage in the state next year. “[W]e know we have legislative champions who are prepared to keep pushing on this issue,” Stevens said.

Elsewhere in the country, climate advocates took heart from two other small victories. In Nevada, voters appeared poised to pass a measure requiring utilities to generate 50 percent of their electricity from renewables within the next 12 years. As of Wednesday morning, that proposal was leading with nearly 60 percent of the vote. And in Florida, voters also successfully passed a constitutional ban on offshore drilling.