Opinion

LOMAX | Thinly veiled anti-fracking groups can scarcely conceal their agenda

Author: Simon Lomax - August 6, 2018 - Updated: August 6, 2018

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Simon Lomax

There they go again.

The final days of signature gathering for Initiative 97 have provided an excellent reminder of why national anti-oil and gas groups shouldn’t be handed the keys to the Colorado state economy.

First, it was revealed that signature gatherers for Initiative 97 weren’t getting the paychecks they were promised – before losing their jobs outright. Then, during a sparsely attended press conference, the campaign claimed as many as 20,000 signatures had been stolen and taken out of the state by a contractor in a dispute over money.

Within hours, the missing signatures – seven boxes full, it was claimed – suddenly and mysteriously reappeared at a Greyhound bus station in downtown Denver, according to the campaign. But amid the chaos, infighting and unanswered questions about the origins of 20,000 signatures found at a bus stop one random evening, the campaign assured the press that everything was fine.

“We are on track,” Micah Parkin, the executive director of 350.org’s local chapter in Colorado, told the Denver Business Journal.

Yet at the same time, anti-oil and gas campaigners complained that pro-energy protests near signature gathering locations were slowing down their efforts. They even accused the protestors of harassment. But when the activists brought Colorado Public Radio along to observe, the reporter witnessed a civil back-and-forth between the protestors and a signature gatherer. They even posed for a group selfie.

“Some people call it harassment. Others say it’s fair game under the First Amendment,” said CPR journalist Sam Brasch in his report.

The bad political theater of the past few weeks is a stark reminder of the highly misleading claims made by the same collection of anti-oil and gas groups two years ago.

In 2016, 350.org, Food & Water Watch and other “keep it in the ground” groups were pushing an almost identical ballot measure to ban drilling within 2,500 feet – roughly half a mile – from a long list of areas deemed off-limits by anti-oil and gas activists, including intermittent streams, irrigation ditches and open space.

The groups claimed they had enough valid signatures to make the ballot, and respected news organizations, including Reuters and CNBC, took them at their word. But that was a mistake.

The claims of anti-oil and gas campaigners quickly unraveled. State election officials said the petitions were delivered in half-empty and near-empty boxes, and suspect signatures on some of the petitions even triggered a forgery investigation.

But what else do you expect from a campaign that misleads voters at every opportunity about the purpose and impact of Initiative 97, along with other anti-oil and gas ballot measures?

“It is certainly not a fracking ban,” the campaign, which calls itself Colorado Rising, told Denver7 news, mirroring similar statements made to other media outlets.

But look closely at the players behind Colorado Rising and you will find the same groups and activists who have been campaigning for a statewide oil and gas ban for years.

Colorado Rising was initially created as a 501(c)4 non-profit in late 2017. Its founding board members included two representatives from national “ban fracking” groups: Food & Water Watch and 350.org. A third board member represented Frack Free Colorado, which vows to “end fracking in Colorado.” The president and treasurer of the new group was Tricia Olson, who also serves as the registered agent of Colorado Rising’s issue committee for ballot measures.

In early 2015, Olson helped Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch launch a group called Coloradans Against Fracking, which campaigns for “a statewide ban on fracking.” In a press release on the launch, she demanded that Gov. John Hickenlooper “eliminate” oil and gas production in Colorado altogether. And in 2016, she was the registered agent for an earlier issue committee that sought “a ban on hydraulic fracturing in the Colorado Constitution.”

That was the same committee, by the way, behind the failed 2,500-foot setback measure in 2016. This year’s anti-oil and gas ballot is a close copy, banning drilling within a half mile of “vulnerable areas.”

In 2016 and 2018, the Hickenlooper administration warned both these ballot measures would effectively ban drilling across most of the state. Under this year’s Initiative 97, more than 100,000 jobs would be eliminated and state and local governments would lose $1 billion in annual tax revenue, according to a study from the REMI Partnership, a state business coalition that includes the Common Sense Policy Roundtable, Colorado Concern and the Denver South Economic Development Partnership.

Today is the deadline for anti-oil and gas activists to submit their signatures, so you can count on more theatrics from anti-oil and gas groups in the hours and days ahead.

But honestly, how can anyone take these antics seriously at this point? After the false claims and forgery of 2016, anti-oil and gas groups already had massive credibility problems. And now the same groups are claiming, among many other things, that 20,000 signatures miraculously showed up at a Greyhound bus station right when they needed them most.

Whether they make the ballot or not – this year or in the years to come – anti-oil and gas groups have shown they can barely manage their own campaigns, let alone the future direction of the Colorado state economy. For this reason, Colorado’s business community will never waver in defending the state economy from the chaotic and destructive political agenda of these groups – and from measures like Initiative 97.

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.