Oil & Gas Industry Giants Spend Millions in Attempt to Defeat Anti-Fracking Proposition in Colorado

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Colorado voters have managed to get a statewide anti-fracking measure on the November ballot. Proposition 112 would require companies to place new wells at least 2,500 feet from homes, schools, waterways and other areas designated as “vulnerable.” This distance is two-and-a-half to five times the current state regulation. The initiative is unprecedented in its scope because it potentially bars new wells on 95 percent of land in top-producing counties. Industry executives are watching with concern, fearful that Proposition 112 could encourage similar measures across the nation. In response, the oil and gas industry has spent millions to defeat Proposition 112, while at the same time putting millions of dollars behind a different measure on the ballot that would amend the constitution to allow property owners to sue their local governments for regulating industries like fracking. We are joined by David Sirota, investigative reporter for Capital & Main.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we go right now to Denver, Colorado. In Colorado, voters have managed to get a statewide anti-fracking measure on today’s ballot, Prop 112, which would require companies to place new wells at least 2,500 feet from homes, schools, waterways, other areas designated as “vulnerable.” That’s two-and-a-half to five times the current state regulation. The initiative is unprecedented in its scope, potentially barring new wells on 95 percent of land in top-producing counties. Industry executives are watching with concern, fearful Prop 112 could encourage similar measures across the country.

In response, the oil and gas industry has spent millions to defeat the proposition, and put millions of dollars behind another measure on the ballot, a constitutional amendment that allows property owners to sue their local governments for regulating industries like fracking. This is an ad supporting that measure, Amendment 74, featuring Republican Mesa County Commissioner John Justman.

CATHIE SWANSON: I’m a proud Colorado rancher and veteran, honored to have served and fought for our way of life. I was raised to understand that our property belongs to us. So, when government makes decisions that impact the value of our property, we should be able to ask for fair market compensation. That’s why I support Amendment 74. No matter what kind of property you own or hope to own some day, you need to stand up for your rights. Vote yes on 74. It’s only fair.

AMY GOODMAN: That was an ad in favor of Colorado Amendment 74. Oil and gas giants have poured almost $40 million into that amendment as a hedge against the passage of Proposition 112, critics say. Senator Bernie Sanders referenced the measure in a tweet, saying, “Colorado Amendment 74, pushed by the fossil fuel industry, seems to be one of the most dangerous propositions in the country. It could open the flood gates for oil, gas and other corporate interests to bankrupt the state. This extremely dangerous amendment must be defeated,” Bernie Sanders said.

For more, we go to Denver, where we’re joined by David Sirota, investigative reporter for Capital & Main, his new article headlined “Energy Giants Choose Nuclear Option in Election’s Biggest Fight Over Fossil Fuel.”

So, tease it out for us, David Sirota. Talk about these two propositions on the ballot today.

DAVID SIROTA: Well, 112, as you described it, it’s a setback measure. It’s basically, there’s been a lot of fossil fuel growth in the same areas where there’s been population growth in Colorado—Colorado, one of the fastest-growing states in the country. And for years, environmentalists and residents of these communities have been asking the state Legislature to pass laws that would compel these companies, these oil and gas companies, to set their fracking and drilling rigs farther back from hospitals, schools, child daycare centers and residential neighborhoods. And the oil and gas industry has used its power—and it has enormous political power in Colorado—to block those initiatives in the Legislature. And so, activists out here got enough signatures to get 112 on the ballot. And that has terrified the oil and gas industry, which is used to getting its way on everything in this state.

And so, the oil and gas industry responded with this constitutional measure, which, as you described it correctly, would empower those companies to sue local communities if local communities pass laws to regulate the health and safety, and all sorts of other public interest ways, the oil and gas industry. So, if a town decides that it doesn’t like that it’s hearing reports from parents that they have found benzene in their kids’ blood and they’re living near fracking rigs and that town decides to pass any kind of law restricting or regulating that fracking activity in the town, Amendment 74 would effectively empower those companies to sue that local government for alleged losses, profit losses, if it puts those laws into place. And so, the effect would be a financial—a deep financial disincentive, a threat of bankruptcy, if any local communities try to regulate the oil and gas industry at all.

And this would serve, I believe, as a template for other states. Where you have states pushing to deal with climate change, to try to reduce fossil fuel emissions, this is a template, this private property measure, that could be put onto the ballot in other states in a way that would effectively ban and block any state and local effort to deal with climate change and to reduce fossil fuel use.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about who’s behind this and what this means today. Also, how many people have already voted in Colorado?

DAVID SIROTA: Well, there’s a huge—we have a huge surge in voting right now. About one-and-a-half million people have voted already. The Democratic vote is up. The Republican vote is actually lower than where it has been.

Who’s behind these measures? It’s a huge amount of oil and gas money. About $40 million has been spent by the oil and gas industry. And I’m glad you showed that ad, because that ad for the private property initiative makes it seem like this is an initiative for farmers and ranchers. And the Farm Bureau has been essentially the face of the Amendment 74, but it has been 99.8 percent oil and gas money behind these initiatives, because this is what these initiatives are designed for. They are not designed for the average farmer or rancher in Colorado. They are designed to have fossil fuel attorneys sue local communities. And the amendment was developed by those fossil fuel lawyers. That’s exactly what this is for.

And this had been resurrected in the past. I mean, about 10 or 15 years ago, states like Oregon had put these private property measures on their books, and it was disastrous. Again, it allowed a corporate interest to sue local governments to effectively eviscerate their basic public interest laws and their zoning laws.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to an anti-74 ad, as we just played the pro-74 ad—don’t know if we can do that right now. But talk about the difference in the amount of money that’s being spent for and against these propositions.

DAVID SIROTA: Yeah, I mean, the proponents of Proposition 112, the setback measure, and opponents of Amendment 74 have been wildly outspent. I mean, nobody has seen the amount of money that the oil and gas industry has poured into these races. I mean, if you ask people—Politico is in Colorado—I mean, this is just an absolutely unprecedented amount of money. And the folks who are pushing for setbacks, the folks who are against Amendment 74, have been vastly outspent because they don’t have the resources of the oil and gas industry.

And I want to go to 74 for one more moment here. You have to understand how deceptive the language on the ballot is. That’s part of the trick here. It proposes an 11-word change to our state constitution. And that constitutional question is also important, because that’s the law that governs all the other laws. But when you look at it on the ballot, it seems like a completely commonsense measure. It says, if the government takes an action, it should remunerate you for any loss of property value. And so there are a lot of voters out there who are progressive voters, Democratic voters, who think this is a commonsense measure that’s almost an innocuous measure, and don’t understand necessarily who is behind this measure, because state officials here in Colorado didn’t compel the oil and gas industry to better explain what the measure was all about and what its effects could be. So, when you open the ballot, you may think you’re voting on an innocuous principle that won’t really change much of Colorado law at all, and yet this is a radical change to our takings laws, our eminent domain laws, in a way that is designed to narrowly and specifically benefit the fossil fuel industry.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a Vote No on 74 ad.

CHAD VORTHMANN: 74 is all about protecting property rights.

JENNIFER KOVALESKI: If it’s not tied to oil and gas, why is oil and gas funding all of your advertising?

CHAD VORTHMANN: They’re not funding it all.

DAN HALEY: We have not taken a position on it. Our focus is on 112.

JENNIFER KOVALESKI: Protect Colorado is funded by the state’s largest oil and gas companies. The oil companies, along with farmers and ranchers, see this as a way to hedge their bet against Prop 112, giving them a way to seek compensation from the state if new regulations, aka new drilling restrictions, are passed.

SAM MAMET: It may be the single worst measure I’ve ever seen on the ballot.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Vote No ad. David, your final response and what you expect to happen today? That ad ends with a—

DAVID SIROTA: Well, I mean, that ad puts it right, that—

AMY GOODMAN: I should say, that ad ends with—

DAVID SIROTA: —this is the most radical ballot measure on the ballot in the entire United States of America in this election. It is designed to create a way for the fossil fuel industry to stop all regulations, at a time when scientists are telling us that we need serious regulations to reduce carbon emissions and fossil fuel use. If this passes in Colorado—and it’s not clear whether it will—if it does, you can expect to see this kind of ballot measure in most—in many other major fossil fuel states across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Governor Hickenlooper could be a presidential candidate in 2020. Where does he stand on this? He’s talking about calling a special session of the Colorado Legislature?

DAVID SIROTA: Yes, Governor Hickenlooper is a strong ally of the fossil fuel industry. He is against 112. He has campaigned against the setbacks measure. He has threatened a—on the eve of the election, threatened to call a special session of the Legislature, a lame-duck session, to potentially overturn Proposition 112, the anti-fracking setback measure, if voters pass it.

But he has campaigned against 74. I mean, the opposition to Amendment 74 has been a broad coalition of everyone from progressives to the business community to Governor Hickenlooper, basically arguing that it could throw the entire legal system in Colorado into chaos.

AMY GOODMAN: David Sirota, investigator reporter for Capital & Main, his most recent article headlined “Energy Giants Choose Nuclear Option in Election’s Biggest Fight Over Fossil Fuel.” And we will certainly cover this tonight on our 6-hour election special, beginning at 7:00 Eastern time. Tune in at democracynow.org or check your local listings.

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