Polis, Industry Vow to Keep Oil and Gas Measures Off the Ballot Through 2022

Coronavirus killed most of this year’s proposals while pact with governor eliminated the sole survivor

The oil and gas industry is a perennial focus for statewide ballot measures in Colorado, and as of April, proponents of seven oil and gas-related initiatives were cleared to circulate petitions this spring. But the pandemic and a pact between the governor and industry announced Friday mean oil and gas issues are likely to be off the ballot through 2022. 

In the spring, ballot initiative proponents were hopeful they could continue collecting signatures by e-mail and mail following a May executive order from Gov. Jared Polis authorizing the unconventional petitioning methods. But the Colorado Supreme Court on Jul. 1 unanimously struck down the governor’s order as unconstitutional, leading many proponents to abandon their efforts. 

As of Jul. 23, it appeared one measure was still poised to make the 2020 ballot. But on Friday, Protect Colorado, the group backing the only surviving ballot initiative, announced it had struck a truce with Polis to set aside its ballot measure battles over oil and gas through 2022.

“Today, we join with Governor Polis and mainstream environmental organizations and agree not to pursue ballot measures in 2020 and work together to prevent adverse ballot measures in 2022,” the group said on its website Friday.

Protect Colorado’s announcement followed an op-ed by Polis published in Colorado Politics Friday in which the governor urged environmental and industry groups to wait until the state’s oil and gas reforms had been implemented before resuming their ballot battles. 

“Let’s give SB 181 a chance to work, and let’s see the full effects of the law instead of returning to the same old ballot box wars that this legislation was designed to avoid,” Polis wrote. 

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE

Protect Colorado, which promotes oil and natural gas development, had been circulating petitions for Initiative #284: Prohibit Restrictions on Utilization of Natural Gas.

On July 23, the group told Law Week it was moving ahead with the measure and had collected more than 166,000 signatures, exceeding the minimum required. 

But on Friday, the group announced it was abandoning the measure this year. “We appreciate and respect the 200,000 Coloradans who signed our petitions, and we will continue to engage them to protect Colorado’s energy industry and provide residents with an environmentally sound and cost-effective source of energy,” the group said in its statement.

The measure would have prohibited the state or local governments from restricting the installation of natural gas use in homes and businesses for cooking, hot water systems, generators and heating systems. 

Colorado doesn’t currently have any laws or regulations that would have been undone by the measure, but dozens of cities have passed restrictions on natural gas in the past couple years, citing concerns over climate change and fossil fuels, and Initiative #284 proponents were trying to get ahead of the trend.

 Several California cities, including Berkeley and San Jose, have banned natural gas connections in most new residential buildings, and Brookline, Massachusetts, passed an all-electric requirement last fall. 

As natural gas bans have popped up around the country, so have measures to prevent such restrictions. Arizona in February became the first state to pass a law prohibiting local governments from banning natural gas hookups, and lawmakers in Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee have proposed similar bills.

VICTIMS OF COVID

Most of the proposals died weeks before the governor’s announcement. The pandemic hampered efforts to gather the nearly 125,000 signatures needed by the Aug. 3 deadline, and the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision earlier this month struck a fatal blow to several campaigns that had been counting on electronic petitioning.

One of the most closely watched ballot measures had been Initiative #174: Setback Requirements for Oil and Gas Development. 

It would have required new oil and natural gas developments to be located at least 2,500 feet from an occupied structure, which includes homes, schools and hospitals, and “vulnerable areas,” a broad category encompassing parks, bodies of water and Superfund sites. The state currently requires a 500-foot setback from residences and 1,000 feet for high-occupancy buildings such as hospitals and schools. 

If the idea sounds familiar, that’s because the language of the measure was similar to Proposition #112, which was rejected by 57% of Colorado voters in 2018. A ballot measure to increase setbacks was also proposed in 2016 but failed to gather the signatures needed to make the ballot.

Colorado Rising, the anti-fracking group behind Proposition #112, had been leading the campaign for this year’s measure until June, when it abandoned efforts to get the initiative on the fall ballot, citing concerns about in-person signature gathering amid the pandemic. 

Another anti-fracking group, Safe & Healthy Colorado, briefly took up the mantle through online signature collection, but then dropped the efforts after this month’s Supreme Court decision. According to media reports, the group plans to keep pushing for rules to increase distances between oil and gas developments and homes. 

Greg Brophy, a former Republican state senator from Senate District 1, proposed two oil and gas-related measures, but he said due to time restrictions and the inability to collect signatures electronically, he and other backers have had to “put them on ice for this year and look at them for next time.” 

One of Brophy’s proposals, Initiative #300: Local Government Authority Pertaining to Oil and Natural Gas Development, would have amended the state constitution to allow any local government to assume full or partial authority over oil and gas operations within its boundaries, taking over powers currently held by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. 

“The basic idea behind that is: Let the red counties be red counties,” Brophy said. “If you’re Weld County or Washington County or Yuma County or Morgan County and you actively want oil and gas development, you should have a regulatory system that fosters that development.”

The second measure Brophy was advocating was Initiative #301: Require Regulatory Impact Analysis for Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Rules. It would have required an analysis of the impact on costs, employment, oil and gas industry growth and other factors for any new or revised rule proposed by the commission.

According to Brophy, the measure aimed to “[set] up a system where we have a lot more transparency and accountability with regard to the proposed cost of regulation.”

Proponents of three other oil and gas-related initiatives in June withdrew the measures after they were approved for circulation. Initiative #311 would have created an “Independent Oil and Gas Board” to replace the COGCC, while Initiatives #312 and #313 would have prevented certain oil and gas and air quality commission rules from being repealed or amended to be less stringent.

—Jessica Folker

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