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Coverage of energy that moves beyond polarized arguments and emotional debate to explore the points of tension, the tradeoffs and opportunities, and the very human consequences of energy policy, production, use and innovation.Inside Energy is a collaboration of seven public media outlets in the nation's energy epicenter: Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota.

When It Comes To Money, Colorado's Possible Ballot Fight Over Fracking Is Lopsided

Stephanie Paige Ogburn
A maze of pipes used for hydraulically fracturing wells, on a well pad near the city of Longmont, Colo.

There are a lot of ways to gauge momentum in politics. If you look at the money both sides of Colorado's hydraulic fracturing debate have raised so far, it seems to be a case of David versus Goliath.

The state's oil and gas industry is preparing for a potential battle at the ballot box against a much less well-funded foe. Supporters of four different ballot measures that seek to restrict drilling are gathering signatures and have raised just tens of thousands of dollars, compared to the more than $6 million that one opposition group has amassed for the fight.

Protect Colorado, an issue committee funded by oil and gas interests, is paying for a television ad that claims, "Natural gas can help reduce our carbon footprint. We need natural gas, and fracking helps us get it."

As an issue committee, it can release overtly political advertising, but must report to the Colorado Secretary of State where it gets its money. The millions it's brought in so far in 2016 come largely from oil and gas companies like Noble and Anadarko.

"Honestly," said Karen Crummy, Protect Colorado's communications director, "it is expensive to educate people."

Right now, Protect Colorado is spending money on billboards around the Fort Collins and Denver metro areas urging people not to sign the petitions for these ballot measures, which Crummy said would wreak havoc on an important piece of the state economy.

These billboards feature pens, clipboards, and short pithy phrases such as "think before you ink."

Credit courtesy Protect Colorado
An example of a billboard sponsored by the oil and gas industry-backed Protect Colorado.

Largely, though, the group's fundraising efforts are more about stockpiling ammunition in case any of the four proposed measures [Initiative 40 (local control), Initiative 63 (right to healthy environment), Initiative 75 (local gov't authority over oil and gas), Initiative 78 (mandatory setbacks)] make the ballot.

"We learned in 2014 that the most important thing is to be prepared at all times," Crummy explained.

Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster and political analyst, said 2014 was the peak of the fracking expansion in Colorado, with high oil prices and drilling popping up all over the Front Range near homes and communities. At that point, real momentum was mounting against oil and gas activity.

"The environmental community was extremely potent," Ciruli said.

It was a community led and largely funded by millionaire and Democratic Colorado U.S. Rep. Jared Polis.

Anti-fracking ballot measures were gathering signatures at that time as well and they were doing really well. It looked like a couple may make the ballot, and might even do well in the election.

Above all at that time, the industry and environmental sides seemed like equals.

"They both sort of came to the table in many ways equally balanced," Ciruli said.

Then, a last minute deal scrapped the ballot measures on the day signatures were due. Congressman Jared Polis said the compromise was a "victory for the people of Colorado" in an August 2014 news conference.

The ballot measures were pulled in favor of an oil and gas task force appointed by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. It was designed to bring both sides together and hammer out some policies to address community and industry concerns.

Ciruli sees that point as a high-water mark for the anti-fracking movement's momentum. Oil prices have crashed since then, and drilling has really slowed down on the Front Range.

"You just don't quite sense the edginess," said Ciruli, "the concern on that issue the way you did two years ago."

This time around, the main issue committee in favor of measures 75 & 78, Yes To Health And Safety Over Fracking, has brought in a little more than $50,000 so far and has already spent most of that money. Still, the ballot measure movement is undeterred.

Lauren Petrie with the Colorado Chapter of the environmental group Food and Water Watch calls the situation pivotal and said people feel like "it's now or never, we've got to do it this year."

Her group is helping gather signatures for the ballot measures. She believes anti-fracking advocates are angry about the ballot measures that were pulled in 2014, and angry with results of Hickenlooper's task force. They believe they didn't go far enough.

They are also angry the Colorado Supreme Court recently struck down local hydraulic fracturing limitations in Fort Collins and Longmont, saying they were trumped by state law protecting the industry.

"This is our opportunity, this is our chance," Petrie claimed.

Political analyst Floyd Ciruli still believes it will be a tall order. Each of the four ballot measures will need to collect and submit at least 98,492 signatures by the August 8, 2016 deadline.

"We're not late in the cycle that they can't make the deadline in August to turn in signatures," he said. "But, clearly time is rapidly running [out]."

Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.

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