Guest post by Phil Doe*
The headline should have read, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and U.S. Representative Jared Polis deny public vote on fracking with last minute deal giving backyard fracking the continued green light in Colorado.
Instead Lynn Bartels, reporting in the hedge fund-owned Denver Post, gushed that a grand compromise had been struck. We were to believe from her front-page story that while the negotiating might not have been fully worthy of Talleyrand (a man once described as a turd wrapped in silk), it was surely ballpark, for all the political rainmakers in the state agreed. Something great had happened. The nasty, unwashed public with its concerns about backyard fracking had been silenced once again.
Bartels has the tendency to turn political reporting into society page puffery, where all the political elite are portrayed in gauzy society colors, not as slaughter-house workers collecting floor renderings to feed a growingly rebellious, democracy-demanding public. So, naturally, Bartels missed the real event.
In a nutshell, Polis, the 3rd richest man in the U.S. House, had agreed to pull two initiatives he had bankrolled. They were designed to offer some minimum controls on fracking. He did not think it necessary to seek consent from the more than 100,000 registered voters who had signed up to get the initiatives on the fall ballot. Neither did he deign to consult with the countless volunteers who had worked to get the required voter signatures. In return, the Governor agreed to establish a “blue ribbon” committee to study the fracking issues. Yep, that’s the grand compromise stripped to an irreducible minimum. As a friend of mine said, “Polis as negotiator makes Neville Chamberlain look like Attila the Hun.”
It is important to remind readers that the initiative process, or direct democracy as it’s sometimes called, is an important feature of Colorado’s constitution. It was adopted at the constitutional convention as the people’s protection against unresponsive or overreaching centralized government. It has been under assault by the ruling class ever since.
One of Polis’ initiatives would have required 2000-foot drilling setbacks from dwellings. This, the industry said, would make fracking impossible and cause the loss of thousands of jobs to state workers. When the going gets tough the industry always trots out the jobs gambit. But oil and gas development is a boom and bust business that brings its skilled workforce with it.
Most emphatically, Snuffy Smith is not going to be hired off the streets of downtown Denver to run giant industrial rigs costing millions of dollars. Like the NFL, it’s not a feel good industry. In keeping with this obvious truth, the Department of Commerce reports that mining in the state, which includes oil and gas development, accounts for less than 1% of state employment and about 2% of personal income.
And just weeks ago, the Department of Commerce announced that, nationwide, business activity in metro areas is the primary source of growth in GDP. Yet, this was reported differently in the Denver Post: “Oil and gas exploration in Mountain West spurs GDP growth nationwide,” said the paper. The article then went on to point out that Greeley, in Weld County, the epicenter of oil exploration in the state, had experienced a growth in GDP of 10%, to $9.5 billion. In 2013, Colorado’s GDP was $294 billion. Greeley’s growth represents about three tenths of 1% in the state’s GDP. This is perhaps significant locally, but not statewide.
Many economists argue that growth from renewables would be even greater, perhaps more than double, if blessed with the same subsidies and preferences, or, even better, allowed to compete on a level playing field. The impact in direct jobs would be inestimably greater, since they would be local and permanent in nature.
Moreover, this sort of mindless cheerleading of the oil business by the Post, which has reportedly reduced its workforce of reporters by 30% since the hedge fund takeover, evaporates when one begins to add in the pollution Colorado’s front-range endures from fracking. By the industry’s own admission, at least 55% of all front-range VOCs, volatile organic compounds, are from oil and gas operations, mostly in Weld County. But the impacts are felt on every major city on the northern-front range, including Denver, where ozone contamination from VOCs exceeds federal health limits.
Add to this the loss of billions of gallons of fresh water used and polluted each year. The poisoned liquid byproduct, of undetermined character and quality, is then forced, under pressure, into the public’s deep groundwater reservoirs without regard to the potential long-term impacts. Out of sight, out of mind.
Clearly this is not a sustainable economic model, one in which everybody and everything has a chance to benefit. No, fracking is one in which the vast majority pay a huge cost in public health and environmental wellbeing so that a few can prosper from their private property rights.
The second Polis initiative would have reasserted the rights of local communities to self-determination, or home rule, if you will. This right is already guaranteed explicitly in the state constitution. It states in part that “… the people of all municipalities” have “the full right of self-government in both local and municipal matters” and nothing shall ever be construed to deny them “any right or power essential or proper to the full exercise of such right.” Article XX, section 6h.
Is there anything more local than 8 to 16 oil wells in your backyard or in a park or school playground? Still, with regard to oil and gas development, the state legislature, apparently unable to read or reason, went rogue and took these rights away from the people and gave them to state government through legislation. The state supreme court lined up to back this legislation. Home rule is supreme except when it comes to oil reasoned they. The constitution must bow to the realities of oil, jobs, and money.
This ugly piece of Colorado political history is the source of much of the unrest in the Colorado cities threatened by the oil invasion.
As is well known, five Colorado front-range cities have passed bans or moratoria. Each is threatened by lawsuits, from both the state and the industry acting in tandem against the rights of the people. Collectively these cities, though among the larger in the state, represent a small fraction of the state’s land mass. In fact, if all of the incorporated cities and towns in the state were to enact bans through the initiative process, less than 2% of the state’s land base would be off limits to the industry.
Longmont’s ban, which is the oldest, was also the first of several to be recently ruled illegal by local courts. The judge, Dolores Mallard, stated in open court that she thought the issue “above her pay grade.” Judges in Boulder County where she sits, enjoy a salary and benefits package worth about $210,000 annually. Screwing up her courage, she ruled against the people of Longmont, saying that, “While the court appreciates the Longmont citizens’ sincerely held beliefs about risks to their health and safety, the court does not find this is sufficient to completely devalue the state’s interest.”
Still, she stayed her razzle-dazzle judgment until the city could appeal, which it has done by unanimous vote of its city council. Two other cities are not for behind.
So what now? Well, because the legislature will not allow initiatives on the ballot every year, the people will have to wait until 2016 to take on oil and gas in any grassroots effort through the ballot box. But that effort is already beginning.
I am co-sponsoring a public trust initiative that would be added to the state constitution requiring all levels of government to protect the public’s air, land, and water against substantial impairment, with the requirement that the best science available be employed in all permitting processes. It would also turn the tables on proof, the corporate trump card, by requiring petitioner’s to demonstrate their proposals would not unduly harm the environment, rather than the other way around, as is now the case.
This same initiative was denied ballot approval by the state’s supreme court last summer because my co-sponsor had to leave town for her aunt’s funeral the day of a rehearing called by objectors, the oil and irrigation interests. We found a co-sponsor substitute for the hearing as the Secretary of State’s procedures allow, but the court ruled the Secretary had exceeded his authority, since the legislature did not specifically allow for a substitute. You can’t make this stuff up.
Others are readying home rule initiatives to strengthen local control, which shouldn’t really be necessary given the longstanding but abused constitutional guarantees.
As to Polis and Hickenlooper, Polis has done himself major damage. He is almost certain to face primary opposition in 2016, since cities with well over half the voting population in his district had already voted to ban or delay fracking within their city limits.
Still, he did face the angered citizenry days after his perfidy. He brought his mother along whose surname name he uses and whose business partner he is. His father’s surname is Schutz, which offered an activist the risible observation that he understood why he picked his mother’s maiden name, for otherwise he would have been for evermore known as “Schutz the Putz.”
His apology to those assembled was eerily tone deaf. He said he had “stepped into a void and tried to move the issue forward. Next time we do this, it’ll be a people-powered initiative.” It is unlikely most people will leave their future to Polis next time. Like Louis Prima made famous in song, “Next time? There’ll be no next time.”
Speculation is rampant as to why he betrayed his promise to push the initiatives. Some say he was pressured by the prospect of a Republican victory in both the Governor and Senate races. This brain-trust strategy may have backfired as these two races have narrowed since the grand compromise. The Democratic base, which is centered in these fracking-threatened, northern front-range cities apparently didn’t get the message. Indeed, the postmortems of this election may indicate that support for fracking by those at the top of the ballot kept many Democratic faithful and independents from voting for them.
The more cynical think his initiatives were simply a Trojan horse devised to drown out grassroots initiatives. That he never intended to carry through.
It is more likely Polis got the word from the Dem establishment in Washington that his continued pursuit of the two initiatives would ruin his chances of becoming the head of the DCCC. A post he apparently prizes. Rich people shaking down other rich people for money has in-group appeal, apparently. For sure, it would allow him to follow in the illustrious footsteps of Rahm Emmanuel and Tony Coehlo.
Hickenlooper seems to be coming progressively unhinged. Just the other day he said the public was wrong in voting for marijuana legalization since we couldn’t be sure yet of marijuana’s health consequences. What? The scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the assertion that fracking is a health threat to local populations, and the planet itself, yet he forges on against moratoria that would allow for a reasoned assessment of fracking’s impact on the very people he has taken a constitutional oath to protect.
That he should find himself in a razor thin race against Republican factotum, Bob Beauprez, borders on the bizarre, the almost unbelievable. Beauprez, in the first governor’s debate, stated he thinks the state should appropriate all federal land in the state, including several national parks. This of course would be unconstitutional, but in his best Cliven Bundy, sagebrush rebel impersonation he said, ”This is a fight we have to wage.” Speculation is that he would offer much of the land up for sale, perhaps to the oil and gas industry. That industry, he claims, is being choked to death by Hickenlooper regulations? Apparently, he would free it to become God’s mighty engine of national prosperity. He has also written that climate change is, at best, a hoax or, at worst, the religious ravings of fevered environmentalists.
Hickenlooper at least believes in climate change. As I suspect do most, if not all, of the people he handpicked to be on his blue ribbon committee. But that committee is probably DOA. It has no representative from the five cities with moratoria or bans. Most of these cities, including the two state university cities, are bedrock Democratic, or were until their 470,000 votes were spurned in the selection process.
Moreover, it is unlikely anything positive will result. This is not to say there are no good people on the committee. There are, some topnotch, but they don’t make up the majority, and by the governor’s instructions any recommendations must receive a two-thirds majority. Even then they would have to run the legislative gauntlet for further hazing.
Note, for the past two years Joann Ginal, a state representative from Ft Collins has introduced legislation to conduct a survey of documented medical reports from people claiming adverse health effects from fracking. Though extremely modest in range and intent, it has twice failed, thanks to the governor’s lack of support and the surprising number of troglodytes in her own party who have been won over by the industry or the reporting in the Denver Post.
The Post itself is reportedly up for sale by the New York hedge fund, Alden Global Capital LLC. It is still hemorrhaging money even with severe reductions in payroll, the benefit of regular full-page ads from the industry, and the once monthly 6-page section called, “Energy and the Environment,” which is made to look like a legitimate section of the paper, not the paid industry propaganda it is in truth.
The ancient philosopher wrote that character is destiny. If this be true, Polis and Hickenlooper are destined to spend eternity together, voiceless in that mysterious place where even the sun is silent.
*Phil Doe has been fighting for Colorado’s water for most of his adult life. He served as Bureau Chief for the Water Subsidy Program and was also Environmental Compliance Officer for the Bureau of Reclamation in the Department of Interior and was featured as a whistleblower on 60 Minutes. A former teacher at several universities, including DU where he did graduate work in English literature, and the Colorado School of Mines where he taught in their honors program. He has published op-ed features in Rocky Mountain News, Denver Post, Colorado Central Magazine, 4-Corners Free Press, Counterpunch, EcoWatch, and Alternet. His past grassroots efforts opposed the Animas-La Plata water project in southwest Colorado. He is a registered citizen lobbyist at the State Capitol and testifies at the federal and state legislative level on natural resource issues. He serves on the board of the grassroots group, Be the Change, and directs their environmental issues program, with a current focus on horizontal hydrofracking.