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Simon LomaxSimon LomaxAugust 21, 201726min2580
Simon Lomax

After the failure of statewide anti-fracking ballot measures in Colorado last year, national activist groups are regrouping at the local level. This is history repeating. Several years ago, the push for a statewide oil and gas ban started with local campaigns, led by Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch and other out-of-state groups.

Today, the activists are using local governments once again to win statewide attention. This time, they are trying harder to conceal their national ties and portray their lobbying as authentic and spontaneous. But if you know where to look, it’s clear these revamped local campaigns are just as contrived as ever.

Take the anti-oil and gas campaign in Thornton. Officials there are debating new local restrictions on oil and gas development, including wider drilling setbacks than state law allows.

The state attorney general’s office recently warned Thornton officials about the proposed regulations, according to ColoradoPolitics.com. In a letter to the city, assistant attorney general Kyle Davenport cited the Colorado Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling on local and state authority over oil and gas. In that landmark case, the court said a local ordinance “that authorizes what state law forbids or that forbids what state law authorizes” is preempted and will be struck down.

Even so, Thornton officials seem unfazed by the potential for litigation. Perhaps they are getting different legal advice, but if so, where is that legal advice coming from?

Enter Barbara Green, an outside oil and gas attorney representing Thornton. Green isn’t just any lawyer, though. She’s a director on the board of Conservation Colorado – the state-level chapter of a larger oil and gas opposition group called the League of Conservation Voters in Washington, D.C.

Both groups have close financial and political ties to Tom Steyer, the anti-oil and gas billionaire from California. In 2016, Conservation Colorado endorsed an anti-fracking ballot measure that would – you guessed it – legalize local energy bans. “When national politics are daunting, it’s time to back to the basics: Organizing local support,” the group said last year.

Green and her law firm also worked on the losing side of the Supreme Court case over local oil and gas bans, along with anti-fracking groups Food & Water Watch, Earthworks and Sierra Club. That litigation cost Fort Collins, her client, and Longmont hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Were Thornton taxpayers told about this? Do they know their oil and gas attorney sits on the board of an anti-oil and gas group? Do they know that expensive legal battles between local officials, state regulators and the energy industry play right into the hands of the environmental lobby?

Are Thornton officials being advised – or lobbied – by their own lawyer?

So that’s the inside game. Let’s examine the outside game.

Enter Food & Water Watch activist Greg Eichhorn, who’s been working through a local group – North Metro Neighbors for Safe Energy – to organize door-to-door canvassing, signature gathering and turnout at council meetings to pressure Thornton officials.

“I’ll take care of any responses and questions … and Food & Water Watch can do the heavy lifting in terms of calling folks,” he told activists recently while distributing campaign flyers under the Facebook pseudonym “Greg Charles.”

Food & Water Watch also sponsored an activist training session with Josh Joswick of Earthworks to “build power at the local level.” Joswick has called the campaign against energy development a “back-alley fight,” urging his fellow activists to “fight it any way you can,” including with local regulations.

Eichhorn also testified in favor of Thornton’s proposed regulations last month, without disclosing his role with a national group that wants to “ban fracking everywhere.” He wasn’t alone.

350.org

Anti-fracking activist Lauren Swain also testified without mentioning her ties to national “keep it in the ground” groups. She has worked for 350.org, its state-level chapter 350 Colorado, and also the Sierra Club on anti-fracking campaigns. As a “fracking issue specialist” for 350 Colorado, Swain was listed as a board member of the group, until she became more visible in Thornton and neighboring Broomfield.

Today, New York-based 350.org is “supporting local community groups” in Colorado, according to The Denver Post. And Bill McKibben himself, the founder of 350.org, campaigned in Thornton last year. For his part, McKibben has called oil and gas a “zombie” industry that he intends to “kill.”

National environmental groups have a First Amendment right to lobby and campaign at any level of government they choose, of course. But let’s be realistic about who’s really running these local campaigns, and what they really want.