It was two years ago that I stood with many of my fellow Colorado constituents to demand that Colorado Congressman Jared Polis reverse his decision to throw out 320,000 legal petition signatures for two ballot initiatives that would have protected Colorado from the worst impacts of fracking. The day he threw out those signatures, we confronted Polis outside of a Boulder library before a town hall meeting on his decision to withdraw the people’s voice from choosing between people’s health and the industry’s takeover of the state. As a young voter, I was appalled that Representative Polis, whom I had supported and met at my high school just a couple years before, had turned his back on my generation as he had decided to side with the industry. That summer, thousands of people had banded together to get two initiatives on the statewide ballot that would support communities to protect themselves from fracking through local control and setbacks. The idea that he would withdraw these initiatives from the ballot at the last moment was an egregious dent in our democracy, a decision that demands grassroots activists understand the entrenched fossil fuel money that continues to exist in Colorado politics.
For that last month in the summer, Governor Hickenlooper, a former geologist for Buckhorn Petroleum, had been working to reach a legislative compromise so that he could call the state legislature back into session in an effort to hold up the anti-fracking petition gathering effort. But with a tight August 4th deadline to turn in signatures, time was running out for the Governor to make a move to stop these initiatives from going through. So he turned to bribery and a little help from his friends in the fossil fuel industry at the last second. Just hours before the signatures were to be turned in, Polis and Hickenlooper made a compromise that would define the role of the fossil fuel industry in Colorado moving forward. In exchange for backrolling the anti-fracking initiatives, Hickenlooper would retract a lawsuit on the city of Longmont for which his office had sued over a voter-approved fracking ban. In addition to this, Hickenlooper worked to get the fossil fuel industry to withdraw two pro-drilling ballot initiatives that were currently being proposed. The result was a total loss of democracy for the people and multiple steps back with the Governor agreeing to put together a task force to address conflicts over oil and gas development in the state. As you can guess, it was stacked with folks from the industry, including Dan Kelly, a recently retired Noble Energy Inc. exec and Perry Pearce, the manager of state government affairs for ConocoPhillips’ Rocky Mountain Region.
Now that entrenched money in Colorado politics has resurged yet again in a big way, this time with the fossil fuel industry pulling out all the stops to defeat two citizen-led ballot measures– #75 and #78– that would mandate half mile setbacks from occupied structures and make a change to the Colorado constitution allowing local municipalities to be able to control oil and gas development without pre-emption from the state. A front group for the industry titled Protect Colorado, has spent over six million dollars in the few couple months in pro-fracking ads and in a voter suppression campaign titled ‘Decline to Sign’. In addition to this, many petition gatherers for #75 and #78 have been followed around by paid industry officials, getting filmed by the industry while they are circulating, these paid industry officials telling people not to sign the anti-fracking ballot initiatives in front of the petition gatherers. It’s no surprise that Governor Hickenlooper is a familiar face with Protect Colorado. Noble Energy, who has a place on the task force Hickenlooper set up in 2014 is one of the largest contributors to Protect Colorado– contributing millions of dollars, matched by Anadarko Petroleum. And it’s not just a one time instance where the oil and gas industry is infiltrating Colorado politics; the ‘Decline to Sign’ efforts and the large ad campaign is part of a multi-year plan to manipulate regulatory agencies and load local government bodies with industry professionals.
While Hillary Clinton has said she supports the local control of oil and gas development, real legislative action has yet to be taken on these issues. With the influence of oil and gas money in Colorado politics, my voice as a young person is silenced against the onslaught of over 50,000 active oil and gas wells in the state. Boulder, where my community is centered, is bound to become a fracking hub as the moratorium that was hard fought and won expires in four months. Frontline communities in Colorado, such as in Weld County where 24 active wells have recently been proposed right next to a Greeley middle school, are fighting for their communities and their health right now. This past week at the DNC, frontline activists confronted Governor Hickenlooper at a caucus put on by the American Petroleum Institute, on his role in poisoning our communities. These activists were escorted out, demonstrating the ever-increasing takeover of industry in American politics.
Democrats and Republicans across the aisle have to work to keep fossil fuels in the ground. A just and sustainable future is not just a matter of climate change, but a matter of supporting communities to have the right to choose between their health and safety and between literally fighting to thrive. It is between entrenched money in politics and democracy, between business as usual and reinvestment into just, sustainable, and community-led solutions that are driven by those most impacted by climate change. We have no choice as young people but to build political power to drive energy democracy before it’s too late.
Michaela Mujica-Steiner is 350 Action’s state-wide organizer for Colorado.