Two Towns Battle Colorado for Freedom to Ban Fracking

In a growing number of states, communities are demanding more self-governance over everything from environmental sustainability to gun control.
Colorado Community Rights Network

Petitioners for the Colorado Community Rights Network gather signatures in Lakewood. Photo courtesy Colorado Community Rights Network. 

Two of Colorado’s leading critics of natural gas drilling say they didn’t know much about fracking until it arrived in their towns.

“If you had asked me about community rights or fracking, you would have drawn a blank stare,” said Clifford Willmeng, board member of the Colorado Community Rights Network and a resident of Lafayette, a town just outside of Boulder.

Tricia Olson agrees. Founder and executive director of the grassroots group Coloradans Resisting Extreme Energy Development, Olson began looking into fracking when she learned that it was coming to her neighborhood. She didn’t like what she found.

Olson began looking into fracking when she learned that it was coming to her neighborhood.

Fracking is a drilling process that injects high-pressure chemical mixtures underground to release gas or oil. But studies have shown that the process can pollute the air, contaminate drinking water (sometimes rendering it flammable), and even increase the likelihood of earthquakes. A 2015 study that analyzed medical and scientific research on fracking “uncovered no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health.”

So Olson and Willmeng did some organizing in their communities and achieved some victories. In 2012, the town of Longmont banned fracking. The following year, nearby Fort Collins put a five-year moratorium on it. But oil and gas companies, along with the state government, disputed the decisions, and the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in May that municipalities lack the authority to stop fracking.

“A local community can do almost nothing about any oil and gas development that comes into that community,” Olson said.

That’s why she and Willmeng have been leading separate efforts to get initiatives on the ballot this year that give local groups the control they need. These efforts are part of a larger movement to increase the power of local governments, at a moment when many see state-level governments as beholden to business interests.

Last year, Olson created Coloradans Resisting Extreme Energy Development to resist high-volume fracking development in the state. The organization has hundreds of canvassers, both paid and volunteer, working to get two measures on the ballot. One of them, Initiative 75, allows local governments to place moratoriums on oil and gas development and prohibits the state from preempting these.

Olson believes that changing state law is the best place for communities to start if they want to see change in self-governance. To make her point, she cites the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Act, which states that it is in the public interest to foster development of oil and gas production.

Gathering the required 100,000 signatures by August 8 will be a tight race, Olson said, but she believes it’s still possible.

“We want to take a substantial shot at what we see as fleeting democracy.”

In Lafayette, Willmeng has been working on a more general ballot effort: Initiative 40, also known as the Colorado Community Rights Amendment. The goal of that proposed legislation is to give communities the right to self-govern so state government can’t preempt their opposition to industrial development. While his team has gathered only 20,000 signatures so far—not enough to make the August deadline—the effort has grown significantly since the first attempt in 2014, when the group gathered only 4,000 signatures. He plans to pick up the effort again in 2018 for the next ballot cycle.

Willmeng became involved in activism early on, coming of age during the era of South African apartheid and punk rock. As a teen, he joined friends in a protest against the Ku Klux Klan. “The more I grew and looked out at the world, the more I found that dynamic in sharp contrast to the world taught about in grammar school,” Willmeng said. So while he’d never been directly involved in anti-fracking advocacy, his background helped guide his leadership on community rights issues.

“We want to take a substantial shot at what we see as fleeting democracy,” Willmeng said.

Colorado is not the only state to find communities demanding more democracy. Similar ballot initiatives have been proposed in Oregon and Ohio this year, while New Hampshire attempted to pass a law through its legislature. It’s part of a grassroots effort spurred on by the National Community Rights Network, a movement that grew out of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). In the past 20 years, the network has helped 200 communities implement community bills of rights.

Colorado Living Wage Bill

Denver residents protest for living wage bill, which is prohibited by Colorado state law. Photo courtesy Colorado Community Rights Network. 

“Things are getting more blatant in terms of the authority the state and federal government has over communities enforcing unsustainable practices such as fracking,” said Mari Margil, associate director at CELDF.

By keeping these community bills of rights broad, towns can maintain jurisdiction over a wide variety of issues. Willmeng points out that rent control, plastic bag bans, and local gun laws are all preempted by state law in Colorado.

But some lawyers say this strategy of a wide scope can be a detriment for eventual court challenges.

“I don’t know what the courts would do with this,” said Richard Collins, a University of Colorado Law School professor. “It’s breathlessly broad.”

Professor Eric J. Segall of Georgia State University College of Law sees controversial measures like these as almost certain to garner a legal challenge. “But I can’t predict which way it will go,” he said.

And these initiatives have passionate detractors. Business-interest groups in Colorado argue laws like these could severely impact the economy. One study suggests that Initiative 78, which restricts fracking 2,500 feet from occupied buildings, could cost more than 100,000 jobs in oil and gas over 15 years.

“Companies simply would not be able to operate here,” said Tom Clark, CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, in a press release. “This initiative, were it to pass, would usher in the probable demise of the oil and gas industry in Colorado.”

But Olson just laughs at the claim that the initiative would drive the oil business out of town at a time when that industry is already shrinking.

The Denver Post reported a loss of 6,700 jobs in the oil, gas, and mining industries between 2015 and 2016, and employment nationally in these industries is down 18 percent over the past year, according to the Brookings Institute.

“Oil and gas already is down because of the price of oil,” she said.