Colorado politics: thick as oil

| Jun 9, 2018

For years, I have watched with concern as the oil and gas industry has waged a battle against the voters of Colorado. Consider two critical junctures.

First came the sudden withdrawal in 2014 of Initiatives 88 and 89 by Colorado 2nd Congressional District Rep. Jared Polis — initiatives that he had bankrolled. One initiative would have increased drilling setbacks from homes and schools. The other would have established an environmental bill of rights, giving power to local governments to regulate fracking.

To the dismay of environmentalists, Polis and Governor Hickenlooper, both Democrats, arrived at a closed-door agreement to bury the initiatives.

Leora Frankel

The most common explanation offered for the decision is that antagonizing such a powerful industry during a gubernatorial election year would have been unwise. Hickenlooper’s administration had already brought a lawsuit against the City of Longmont to strike down its fracking ban.

High Country News described Polis’s attempt to placate the activists: “Back at the Boulder library, Polis tried to persuade irate activists that it will be easier to pass anti-fracking measures in 2016, should the committee’s recommendations or the Legislature’s response fail to satisfy them.”

This was not how events played out. A petition brought by Shane Davis and addressed to Polis expressed the outrage of many:

We watched in horror as you blatantly hijacked Colorado’s democratic process, by throwing out nearly 300,000 signatures for statewide initiatives 88 and 89 that you yourself said were “sensible regulations on fracking.” You represent a district where five communities passed local initiatives that voted “yes” to moratoria and bans on fracking, yet you failed to represent those constituents, your constituents.

The second juncture, one that demonstrates the efficacy of unilateral campaign messaging, was the passing of Amendment 71 in the 2017 elections. Taking direct aim at citizens’ initiatives, this amendment added burdensome requirements, raising the required majority vote to gain passage to 55 percent and, for good measure, tacking on a challenging geographic condition (deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge).

As quoted in the Boulder Weekly, Bill Semple, who was trying to overturn the amendment in court, said: “Unfortunately, what Amendment 71 did is it put [citizen-initiated constitutional amendments] out of reach of grassroots organizations. It does the opposite of what the citizens’ initiative process was intended for.” Who funded the campaign to pass Amendment 71? The Boulder Weekly cited the finding of Clean Slate Now, a non-partisan organization, that 92 percent of the $28 million behind Amendment 71 came from (you guessed it) the oil and gas industry.

Amendment 71, if allowed to stand, would make it extraordinarily difficult to mount the kind of initiatives that had been withdrawn in 2014. Its effect is to solidify the position of Big Oil in Colorado, neutering the environmentalists.

This brings us to this year’s Democratic primaries.

The oil and gas industry remains on the offensive. The beaten-down, anti-fracking majority along the Front Range is desperately fighting to keep drilling at bay, to keep the rigs out of the towns and cities, away from homes, schools and hospitals. Local environmentalists are now reduced to fighting for a 2,500-foot setback as a statutory amendment (which could potentially be overturned by the legislature) as opposed to the much stronger option of a constitutional amendment.

Anti-frackers seek new measure

Colorado Rising is trying to collect 130,000 signatures to put this statutory amendment on the ballot this fall but coming up against predictable oil-and-gas-industry resistance. Just this week, I heard from a reliable source that an industry representative offered a generous sum of money to the signature-gathering company if it would suspend its efforts.

What’s clear is that the communities along the Front Range are up against Big Oil in a battle for our land, air, water and overall health. Even Open Space land, set aside specifically for conservation, is under threat.

Where’s the Democratic Party in all this? What’s its relationship to the oil and gas industry in Colorado? Where do individual Democratic candidates stand on fracking? Are they receiving campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, its lobbyists and its affiliates?

An article that appeared on June 6 on The Intercept — titled “Colorado’s Democratic Party Kingmaker is a Fracking Lawyer. What Could Go Wrong?” — goes a long way towards addressing these questions. (The Intercept was established by Glenn Greenwald, best known for his reporting about whistleblower Edward Snowden.)

Ken Salazar’s backing key

The article describes in depressing detail the political machinations of Ken Salazar, the former Secretary of the Interior, who was hired as a “lawyer and fixer” for Anadarko Petroleum Corp. after the Firestone explosion. The article calls Salazar an extremely powerful force within the Colorado Democratic Party and delves into his relationships with a number of current candidates. His support appears to be critical to their success.

Colorado Dems are enmeshed with Big Oil, and the Republican Party, predictably, offers no solutions. The only hope lies in the grassroots movement. Paradoxically, when activists try to illuminate the ties between the fracking industry and politicians, they’re often accused of promulgating negative messages. And yet: how else to combat the power of this industry except with the truth?

Industry lawyers back Neguse

Here in Colorado’s 2nd Congressional district, the primary offers up two Democratic candidates: Joe Neguse, who enjoys the full backing of the Party, and Mark Williams, who lacks formal party backing but has quite the army of volunteers. Lawyers at two major law firms, both of which represent the oil and gas industry, are the two biggest donors in aggregate to Neguse’s campaign. This raises legitimate questions. Neguse’s reply is to point to one of the firms, Holland & Hart (where Neguse worked for six years), and to ask how bad can his former employer be, given that it’s currently representing the City of Boulder in its long-standing municipalization go-around against Xcel Energy.

Thus we’re presented with two powerful ingredients. First is the long-term pattern of collaboration between local Democratic politicians and the industry. Then, throw in the more recent clear-the-field tactics of local Dems intent on securing the seat for Neguse. Taken together, you can’t help but wonder, as the Intercept article does: Why all this interference? Why not let voters make their own call?

In a particularly glaring example of the top-down approach of party officials, Dan Sena, the national Executive Director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, sent out an email May 24 in which he announced three “New True Blue Candidates,” across the nation, with Joe Neguse among them. “True Blue spotlights our future colleagues in open blue districts,” he wrote. Silly old primaries, it would appear, are just a formality.

Candidates’s mixed signals

Neguse’s replies to questions about fracking, starting in January when I first heard him speak, have been cautious. At a forum organized by Our Revolution, he focused on his family’s experience with drilling in Lafayette, saying “I don’t support fracking in our neighborhoods and in our area,” but did not propose practical solutions for the residents of Colorado or express support for specific initiatives.

Meanwhile, his website does advocate “fighting for local control so that communities can regulate or outright ban oil and gas development in their communities.” It’s impossible to predict how any politician will vote or operate when a moment of truth comes. It may be that Neguse, despite being endorsed by industry-friendly Salazar and getting all those lawyerly dollars, will step up and be a vocal opponent of fracking.

If fracking is one of your uppermost concerns, I’d propose that you vote for candidates who clearly promise to oppose fracking and to represent the strong anti-fracking sentiment of Front Range residents. Mark Williams has my support in the 2nd Congressional District because I believe he will stand strong against powerful corporate players — especially Big Oil. In the current political climate, his refusal to take money from corporations, PACs and lobbyists speaks volumes.

NOTE: Originally posted June 9, this article was slightly edited by the author on June 11.

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