LOMAX: Reality catches up with anti-oil and gas groups as they take a victory lap

Author: Simon Lomax - December 4, 2017 - Updated: December 4, 2017

Simon Lomax

My first real experience writing about politics was in the Deep South — Mississippi to be precise. Southern politicians are famous for their expressions and sayings, but these words of wisdom have always stuck with me: “In politics, nothing is ever as good as it seems, and nothing is ever as bad as it seems.”

That’s good advice for everyone — especially the national environmental groups running local and state-level campaigns against Colorado’s energy sector.

California-based Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters in Washington, D.C. made some big moves in local politics this year, backing a ballot measure and several municipal candidates in the Nov. 7 election. It was “a shot across the bow” of the oil and gas industry in Colorado, the Sierra Club declared. Conservation Colorado, the LCV’s local chapter, even called it a “triumph of progressive values and people-power over oil and gas-backed interests.”

Not quite. Less than 24 hours into the anti-oil and gas victory lap, the Adams County Commission voted 4-1 in favor of a new drilling project located along the Northwest Parkway. Soon after, the Garfield County Commission unanimously approved another drilling project. Then back in Adams County, oil and gas engineer Jan Kulmann declared victory in her campaign for a second term on the Thornton City Council, after voters rejected an activist-led campaign to unseat her.

In all three cases, anti-oil and gas groups were fully engaged. They lobbied against the approvals in Adams and Garfield counties, and in Thornton, a committee bankrolled by the Sierra Club spent tens of thousands of dollars attacking Kulmann simply for being an oil and gas worker. But the voters of Thornton rejected these tactics, just like they rejected an anti-fracking recall of Kulmann a year earlier.

So, if the Nov. 7 election really was a triumph for anti-oil and gas groups, why did local governments go back to approving new drilling programs the very next day, and how did an oil and gas worker trounce the activists for the second time in two years?

For those closely following the energy debate in Colorado, the answer is obvious: National anti-oil and gas groups have been losing credibility and influence in our state for years, and need more than a handful of local victories if they hope to turn things around.

Consider the following: In 2013, activist groups passed four oil and gas development bans in Fort Collins, Boulder, Lafayette and Broomfield. More than 100,000 people voted across these four cities and the bans passed by an overall margin of 62 percent to 38 percent, according to election records.

These local bans – pushed by Sierra ClubClean Water Action and other national groups – set off a scramble to gather signatures for statewide anti-oil and gas initiatives. But those efforts collapsed without a single measure even qualifying for the ballot, and the local bans were struck down by the Colorado Supreme Court.

Later, California anti-oil and gas billionaire Tom Steyer and New York finance tycoon George Soros poured money into a campaign to take control of the state legislature. This also failed, even though the activists needed a net gain of just one state Senate seat.

Going into 2017, activist groups put forward just one local initiative instead of four. In Broomfield, roughly 20,000 citizens voted this year on Question 301, one-fifth the number who voted on anti-oil and gas measures four years ago. And the result was closer – 57 percent to 43 percent, instead of 62-38 across four cities in 2013.

The backers of Question 301 also watered down their measure dramatically. Instead of a specific proposal, like an oil and gas ban, Question 301 made a deliberately vague appeal for “health, safety and welfare.” Broomfield’s city attorney also made clear during the campaign that Question 301 isn’t legally enforceable and won’t stop drilling, because under Colorado law, health and safety issues are already regulated by state-level agencies.

“Clearly, health and safety of these communities is our primary, paramount concern,” Gov. John Hickenlooper told Colorado Public Radio recently when asked about the Broomfield ballot measure.

At best, Question 301 was a symbolic victory for anti-oil and gas groups – just like the handful of wins the they claimed in local candidate races.

LCV’s local chapter supported two winning candidates on the 11-seat Aurora City Council. In Broomfield, two candidates favored by environmental activists won contested races, but two candidates who stood up to the activists also prevailed. Meanwhile, in Thornton and Greeley, a group of candidates backed by anti-oil and gas groups, multimillionaire Boulder Congressman Jared Polis and the local chapter of the national group Indivisible performed poorly.

In fairness, I work with a group that opposed anti-business groups in local elections this year, so I’m always ready to challenge the agenda and the political claims of the Sierra Club, LCV and their allies.

But the facts clearly show that anti-oil and gas campaigners overplayed their hand four years ago, and there’s good evidence they are doing the same thing all over again today. Only this time around, the Sierra Club, LCV and other groups are going into 2018 with an even weaker set of cards. And they have been caught bluffing before.

To be sure, the role of national anti-oil and gas groups in Colorado shouldn’t be understated. But it shouldn’t be overstated, either. History shows they are losing much more ground than they are gaining.

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.