Opinion

LOMAX | Bankruptcy pitch in Lafayette shows desperation of national anti-fracking groups

Author: Simon Lomax - March 30, 2018 - Updated: March 30, 2018

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Simon Lomax

As a reporter and an advocate, I have spent most of my career following the tactics of national environmental groups, both in Washington, D.C. and in the states. A recent fly-in visit from one such group — the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, or CELDF — shows just how much those tactics have changed.

When I got started on the energy and environmental beat in the mid-2000s, the groups I covered had a constructive agenda for the most part. They wanted to accelerate the transition to renewable energy while making sure the sources that power the vast majority of the U.S. economy – oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear – were held to the toughest environmental standards in the world.

But during the Obama administration, a major shift occurred. Renewable energy expanded dramatically, U.S. carbon emissions plummeted, we took major strides towards energy independence, and state and federal regulations governing domestic energy production were dramatically toughened – especially here in Colorado. At first, environmental activists welcomed these developments, but that didn’t last long.

The activists moved the goal posts, and what they once called good news was suddenly bad news. Strict regulations and real environmental outcomes were no longer good enough — only bans on mainstay energy sources like oil and natural gas would do.

But the “keep it in the ground” doctrine has been a massive failure. Environmental groups like Sierra Club and 350.org – and environmental donors like California anti-oil gas billionaire Tom Steyer – find themselves isolated on the fringes of the political spectrum like never before. Domestic energy production from drilling and fracking has climbed to record levels, and as a direct result, U.S. emissions have fallen faster than anyone expected.

As I argued last year in a column opposing the Trump administration’s harmful trade barriers on the solar industry, political campaigns to eliminate specific energy sources are totally misguided. People favor energy policies that build things up, not tear things down.

You can see examples of the failure of the “keep it in the ground” campaign everywhere: Just ask Hillary Clinton how trying to please these groups during the 2016 presidential primary drove away blue-collar voters in the general election. Or ask the national environmental groups that have tried and failed to impose direct and indirect bans on energy development across Colorado in recent years.

These groups include Pennsylvania-based CELDF, which has been lobbying Lafayette officials to break the law, ignore the advice of their own attorneys, and put the city on a path to bankruptcy – just so the group can claim a symbolic win against the state’s energy sector.

… Lafayette officials have done everything possible to delay and obstruct oil and gas development, like their counterparts next door in Boulder. But this is not enough for CELDF and other anti-oil and gas activist groups – they are demanding an overt ban even though such a move is expressly forbidden under state law.

Specifically, CELDF executive director Thomas Linzey, who visited Lafayette on March 5, wants the city to impose a ban on oil and gas development using a so-called “Climate Bill of Rights.” To be clear, Lafayette officials have done everything possible to delay and obstruct oil and gas development, like their counterparts next door in Boulder. But this is not enough for CELDF and other anti-oil and gas activist groups – they are demanding an overt ban even though such a move is expressly forbidden under state law.

But triggering costly legal action is the whole point, Linzey told an audience of activists and city officials in early March. The city would be sued by mineral rights owners for “the cost of the unobtainable oil and gas resources that you’ve locked up” as well as the other side’s legal costs, Linzey said. Believing the ban to be unconstitutional or illegal, Lafayette’s insurance company will run “for the hills” and “you can expect no insurance” to cover the massive legal bill, he said.

Linzey is a lawyer and CELDF is offering to represent Lafayette for free, but under questioning from Mayor Christine Berg, he admitted “courts have not been receptive” to the group’s arguments. “Judges have by and large dismissed it in a paragraph,” he said. “Recently in one case, we filed a 90-page brief and the judge dismissed it in four lines.”

Weeks before the meeting, the city attorney’s office asked in writing whether CELDF carries malpractice insurance. The group responded: “CELDF is unable to provide a response to this question.” Nor will CELDF take responsibility for any of the financial harm it causes. “[T]he City, not CELDF, would be responsible for any judgments, fee awards, sanctions or other costs imposed,” the group wrote back to the city attorney.

But again, that’s kind of the point. CELDF is looking for local officials who will say “we don’t care if we have to file for municipal bankruptcy,” Linzey said, echoing an interview he gave Reuters in 2015: “[I]f a town goes bankrupt trying to defend one of our ordinances, well, perhaps that’s exactly what is needed to trigger a national movement.”

So CELDF’s pitch is municipal bankruptcy. Seriously, that’s their plan. And CELDF is one of the national groups calling the shots in the campaign to wipe out Colorado’s energy sector, one of the most important economic drivers and biggest employers in our state.

Like I said, the tactics of environmental campaigners have changed a lot in recent years. And their choices just keep getting worse.

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.