Costly ads to fuel ballot battles over fracking

Cliff Willmeng has two children and a full-time job as a registered nurse – and he still devotes hours of his time every week to getting an initiative placed on the November ballot to restrict oil and gas development.

Willmeng, a Lafayette resident, has traveled throughout the state to give presentations on his beliefs: that towns and cities need more regulatory authority to keep powerful corporate interests in check.

“We’re highly motivated,” Willmeng said.

Willmeng is one of many activists working to place 17 statewide ballot initiatives to restrict oil and gas development in Colorado on the ballot.

At the same time, a bipartisan group of more than 150 local government officials, representing Loveland, Berthoud and Firestone among others, expressed concern about such local-control initiatives in a recent full-page ad in the Denver Post. The ad was paid for by the oil and gas advocacy group Vital for Colorado.

This growing fray is likely to turn Colorado into a major political battleground on energy this year, observers say.

It’s not clear how many of the initiatives will make the ballot in time for the Nov. 4 election, but when the dust clears later this year, an estimated $30 million will have been spent.

The initiatives have cleared various hurdles in the process, with activists arguing that local governments should have greater control over industrial activity within their borders and energy industry advocates arguing that new local regulations will lead to mass confusion and regulatory uncertainty.

The debate centers on hydraulic fracturing, the controversial drilling technique known as “fracking,” which involves pumping millions of gallons of fluid into a drilled hole deep underground at high pressure to extract oil and natural gas.

A new study by the University of Colorado-Boulder indicated that a statewide ban on fracking would cause widespread economic damage.

Sponsored by the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., Denver South Economic Development Partnership and the Commonsense Policy Roundtable, the study determined that a ban would trim 93,000 jobs, lead to $12 billion in lost gross domestic product, and reduce tax revenue to local and state governments by $985 million over 25 years. The roundtable is a Colorado think tank whose membership includes several members of the oil and gas industry.

Activists have mobilized to ban fracking despite new regulations by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to limit air pollution from oil and gas facilities. The rulemaking will reduce volatile organic compounds, including the greenhouse gas methane, by one third.

Floyd Ciruli, a Colorado pollster who has followed the debate, said the ballot initiatives could generate upwards of $30 million in spending from the energy industry and environmental activists.

“When you’re spending $30 million to $40 million in an election, believe me, there’s a lot at stake,” Ciruli said.

Fracking opponents so far have seen success in places such as Fort Collins, Longmont, Lafayette, Broomfield and Boulder, where voters have passed fracking bans. Some of the recent initiatives have received initial approvals from the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.

Activists must collect more than 86,000 signatures from registered voters by Aug. 4 for each initiative to appear on the November ballot. Ciruli said it usually takes $5 to collect each signature, which could cost organizers as much as $430,000 for each initiative.

The task may prove difficult for activists such as Willmeng, who has a shoestring budget of less than $15,000 for his initiative, which would give local governments constitutional authority to ban certain businesses. Willmeng said he has no connections to any major environmental groups that could bankroll his efforts.

“We’re totally grassroots,” he said. “We have no paid staff. … We don’t get to pay people to go out and gather signatures.”

Locally, energy industry spending will come from Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, an oil and gas advocacy group funded by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: APC) and Noble Energy Inc. (NYSE: NBL), two of the largest oil and gas producers in Weld County. Those companies have said they would spend billions of dollars drilling for oil in the prolific Wattenberg field this year.

Jon Haubert, spokesman for the organization, said he did not know how much the group planned to spend this year. An issues committee known as Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy and Energy Independence, started by CRED founders Noble Energy and Anadarko as well as other companies, will report its first round of contributions and spending in May. The committee will address ballot issues, campaigns and elections.

Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development’s task is to persuade voters that cities and towns already have enough authority to regulate oil and gas activities, that the state sufficiently regulates drilling operations and that residents have the opportunity to weigh in on oil and gas proceedings through public comment periods during municipal government meetings.

“We have a lot of instances where local government is already involved in energy development,” he said. “Why is a statewide ballot initiative being proposed while there’s already a system in place that addresses all these things?”

Haubert said the group will advertise on television and radio and mount social media and mail campaigns to spread its message.

As for anti-fracking campaigns, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., an outspoken fracking critic, reportedly has funded ballot initiatives that seek to increase local control of oil and gas drilling. A Polis spokesman said in an email statement that the congressman supported fracking but planned to back a ballot initiative that protects communities and homeowners from negative impacts of the drilling method. The spokesman did not respond to further questioning on the matter.

Kelly Giddens, a mother of four who led the charge to temporarily ban hydraulic fracturing in Fort Collins, is spearheading a statewide initiative through the organization Local Control Colorado to give local governments authority to regulate oil and gas operations.

Under the measure, any county, city or town, whether statutory or home rule, could ban oil and gas development, including fracking.

Giddens said the state has failed to adequately protect public health, safety and property values.

“The people of Colorado want local communities to be able to regulate industry locally,” Giddens said, “with state regulations being a floor and not a ceiling to protect public health, safety and property values – most importantly their families.”

Steve Lynn can be reached at 970-232-3147 or Follow him on Twitter at @stevelynnBW.