Opinion

LOMAX | Anti-oil and gas movement gains little ground beyond Boulder

Author: Simon Lomax - June 27, 2018 - Updated: June 17, 2018

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Simon Lomax

For years, national environmental activist groups have camped out in Boulder and the suburbs of Boulder, running a series of local campaigns against the oil and gas industry. From this corner of the state, they have tried to stage a much bigger campaign to drive oil and gas out of Colorado.

But the activists have struggled because — at the risk of stating the obvious — Colorado isn’t a big college town.

To see this dynamic in action, consider two recent actions by local officials in Commerce City and Aurora concerning oil and natural gas development.

In Commerce City, activist groups were pushing local officials to impose a six-month moratorium on oil and gas permitting. But when the proposal was placed on the city council’s agenda, energy workers and their supporters turned out in force to speak against the de facto ban.

“Any ban on fracking is bad for Adams County, it’s bad for Colorado and it’s bad for America,” one energy worker told the city council’s June 4 meeting. Members of the Pipefitters Local 208 — a union with strong connections to the energy sector and other industries supported by oil and gas development — were also vocal opponents of the proposed six-month moratorium.

“Taking a six-month break on an entire industry is going to have a tremendous negative impact on those workers,” a union representative told the council.

In response, the council voted 7-1 to table the proposed moratorium indefinitely.

On the same night in Aurora, anti-oil and gas activists were handed defeat again, with local officials rejecting a proposed overhaul of the city’s Oil and Gas Advisory Committee.

Environmental groups and other activist organizations targeted the Aurora City Council in last November’s election, and for the candidates they supported, remaking the oil and gas advisory committee has been a major priority.

The proposal would have reduced the representation of oil and gas industry officials and surface property owners on the advisory committee. But it was defeated in a 6-4 vote after supporters of the proposal rejected a compromise to increase the size of the committee and add new members rather than just kick people off.

These two votes on the same night expose a massive problem for national anti-oil and gas groups like Food & Water Watch and 350.org in Colorado.

It’s easy to talk about banning an entire sector of the Colorado economy, and to propose taking away the livelihoods of thousands of working families, when you’re in a college town or the affluent suburbs nearby. Take that same message to Commerce City or Aurora — communities with a much higher percentage of working-class families who don’t take good-paying jobs for granted — and people will call you out.

They see no reason why blue-collar workers and their families, some working in oil and gas and many more working in industries supported by oil and gas, should lose their jobs to appease the political views of college towns like Boulder or the political views of “keep it in the ground” activist groups from the East and West coasts.

These communities are much more representative of the state as a whole than the wealthy communities in and around Boulder where anti-oil and gas groups do most of their campaigning. Therefore, anti-oil and gas activists have historically hit a wall of bipartisan opposition whenever they try to take their campaign statewide.

This isn’t a new trend, nor is it unique to Colorado. As a reporter covering Congress and the Obama administration’s environmental agenda, I saw the tension between organized labor and environmental activists all the time. In states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, groups seeking to ban oil and natural gas development are regularly opposed by trade unions.

Last month, in fact, former Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D) tried to win his party’s nomination for governor by running on a platform to ban oil and natural gas development in the Buckeye State. He lost by almost 40 percentage points to Richard Cordray, who warned primary voters against Kucinich’s “extreme position,” according to Energy In Depth.

And during the 2016 election, construction unions were openly critical of environmental activist groups and their wealthy donors for opposing “an all-of-the-above energy policy that not only creates good union jobs, but offers to keep the lights on and meet our nation’s energy needs even as we transition to a cleaner, more sustainable future,” according to The New York Times.

To be sure, there’s no room for complacency about proposed oil and gas bans, ballot measures and other activist campaigns targeting the state energy sector. Locally produced and affordable energy is critical to workers, business owners, household budgets and every sector of the state economy. We must not take it for granted.

With that in mind, it’s worth recalling the words of Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) in 2014 when he first led a bipartisan coalition – including organized labor and pro-business groups – to oppose anti-oil and gas ballot measures.

“It is clear that these measures will kill jobs and damage our state’s economy,” Hickenlooper said. “We will always look for ways to improve safety, but we do not need extreme measures that would drive oil and gas out of Colorado.”

Simon Lomax

Simon Lomax

Simon Lomax is a research fellow with Vital for Colorado, a coalition of state business leaders, public officials and citizens focused on energy policy, and an adviser to pro-business groups. Before going into advocacy, he was a reporter for Bloomberg News and a congressional fellow with the American Political Science Association. The views expressed are his own. Find him on Twitter at @simonrlomax.