By Sam Alston

The USA political scene is consumed by a battle between President Trump and Democrats who are desperate to recapture Congress. However, in the mountain state of Colorado a referendum – bitterly opposed by locally entrenched oil and gas firms – proposes restricting the exploitation of the state’s massive oil reserves. The campaign and its outcome stand as a test in seeing whether such restrictions could be a viable solution to keeping fossil fuels in the ground.

Colorado was founded by gold and silver prospectors, it embraces a tradition of individualism and frontier expansion, and has a substantial survivalist community. The vast state is sitting on approximately 5% of USA gas reserves, 9% of USA current fracking wells, and produces 1.1 million barrels of oil a day. The fracking boom that has made the USA energy independent is built on the energy industries of states like Colorado.

Proposition 112

This November alongside midterm elections, Colorado voters will decide on Proposition 112. The initiative would increase the required distance from residential property or vulnerable areas that new oil and gas developments (including fracking) would need to be developed. This would mean that an estimated 94% of the non-federal land area in the five counties with the most fracking would be unsuitable for new developments. Despite not acting as an outright ban – which have been implemented in three other USA states – it would be a major, possibly crippling, blow to the local oil and gas industry as evidenced by various panicky articles in industry publications.

…an alliance of fracking firms and big oil companies formed in 2014 has raised $31 million to oppose the motion.

However, the motion is opposed by the political establishment including the candidates for governor of both parties. Moreover, an alliance of fracking firms and big oil companies formed in 2014 has raised $31 million to oppose the motion.  While the campaign to support it has raised almost $1 million at the time of writing, a significant amount of this budget was spent to get the measure on the ballot. Even out of state environmental groups are wary.

However polling puts support for the proposition running at 52%, defying political gravity.

What is going on out West

The relative success of this motion so far is partially down to the terrible experience of those living near fracking sites. This has also driven similar campaigns much closer to Norwich, in Surrey, Sussex and Lancashire. As the Christian Science Monitor reports here, gas rigs are noisy, smelly and can be explosive. They are also argued to have detrimental effects on health and drinking water.

However, by glancing at some of the material published by Colorado Rising, the umbrella group for proposition 112 supporters what is clear is that rather than run an exclusively negative campaign against fracking, they have also tailored a positive campaign offering an alternative vision for their state. They emphasize the potential growth of solar power in the state (capacity increased 2% last year),tourism jobs (11% of state employment) vs direct oil industry jobs (less than 1%) and not being afraid to state their general opposition to a fossil fuel powered future.


Air Force Academy Solar Farm, Colorado Springs (Image credit: U.S. Air Force)

The oil industry has spent $80 million to keep anti-fracking measures off the ballot paper in Colorado over the last decade.

Oil industry strikes back: Amendment 74

The oil industry has spent $80 million to keep anti-fracking measures off the ballot paper in Colorado over the last decade. They are not going down without a fight, as also on the ballot is Amendment 74. This would require property owners to be compensated for state policy which causes a loss of market value to their property. This broad restriction would mean that if Proposition 112 was to pass, the state would potentially end up having to pay out for the loss in  market value of oil and gas firm property assets. The restriction is so crippling that even pro-business groups such as the Denver Chamber of Commerce have come out strongly against the measure. However polling suggests 63% support the measure.  

What next

No state as closely associated with the oil industry as Colorado has ever voted to take the bold step to leave it’s fossil fuels resources in the ground; in the USA or elsewhere (though Ecuador gave it a good try). The stakes are very real. If we are willing to exploit the reserves under Colorado, then we will almost certainly exploit the fossil fuel reserves in developing countries, by doing so civilisation will ultimately be faced with runaway climate change.  The ballot measure in Colorado and the inevitable subsequent litigation battle has major implications for a key question of our time; is it really possible for developed economies to take the choice to leave our fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

Featured image credit: Tony Webster (Flickr)

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