Sept. 30–There would be no Proposition 112 had Colorado lawmakers properly represented the interests of their constituents. But they didn’t do that. When it comes to oil and gas development, they glibly dismiss resident concerns about health and safety or claim that, given the laws on the books, there’s little they can do.
But voters who live near oil and gas operations have legitimate fears about their physical well-being, and, in the face of inaction on the part of elected leaders, they should approve Proposition 112.
The measure would greatly increase the distance between oil and gas activity and residential areas. It calls for a 2,500-foot setback on non-federal land between new oil and gas development and an occupied structure or vulnerable area. A distance of 2,500 feet is based on “health studies that show harmful effects, such as cancer, difficulty breathing, low birth weights and birth defects, on people living within a half-mile of fracking operations,” according to Colorado Rising, the group that sponsored the ballot initiative. Vulnerable areas can mean playgrounds, parks, sports fields, open space and waterways.
Current setbacks are 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools, hospitals and other high-occupancy buildings. Local jurisdictions may not set larger setbacks under current regulations. But Proposition 112 would allow them to establish setbacks even greater than 2,500 feet.
In Boulder County, Broomfield and communities throughout the Front Range, oil and gas production is a pressing concern as new production facilities are installed within sight, smell and hearing of homes and schools. As of last year there were 55,000 active wells and 36,500 inactive wells in the state. New homes are going up in the same areas as new wells, creating an escalating clash between home life and heavy industry.
Proposition 112 is more than a plea for quality of life. Life itself is at stake. “(Oil and gas) facilities emit air pollutants that are potentially a major health risk for nearby populations,” said a Colorado School of Public Health study this year. The risks, related to inhalation of benzene and alkanes, increase with proximity to the facilities, the study found, concluding that “state and federal regulatory policies may not be protective of health for populations residing near (oil and gas) facilities.”
This echoes other recent studies. Babies who lived within 0.62 miles (2,500 feet is just short of half a mile) of a fracking site in Pennsylvania were found in a study published last year in Science Advances to have a 25 percent greater chance of being born underweight. Fracking, a process whereby pressurized fluid is pumped into shale rock to fracture it and release fossil fuels, is employed in the vast majority of Colorado wells. Other studies have indicated a connection between oil and gas production and cancer, depression and other health effects. Ground-level ozone levels in Colorado have exceeded Environmental Protection Agency limits, and a study published last November in the journal Elementa identified oil and gas activities as a major contributor. Oil and gas operations sometimes lead to catastrophic accidents. The most dramatic recent accident in Colorado was a home explosion in Firestone last year that killed two people. But other incidents receive less notice, such as the May 2017 oil tank explosion in Mead that killed a worker.
Quality-of-life issues are less fearsome than those related to health and safety, but they are nevertheless substantial. Extraction of fossil fuels involves heavy industrial operations, which often means bright lights, bad odors, loud noise and unsightly infrastructure. Industrial activities of almost every other kind are subject to meaningful local control and barred from residential areas by regulation for a reason, but oil and gas in Colorado is conspicuously excepted.
The catalogue of efforts by fed-up residents is thick, but some highlights will suffice to make the point that they’ve tried mightily to protect their communities. In 2012, voters in Longmont added a fracking ban to their city charter. But industry interests fought the ban, and the Colorado Supreme Court struck it down in 2016. Lafayette also had a ban that fell to legal challenge. Some jurisdictions, such as Boulder, Boulder County, Broomfield and Fort Collins, have employed moratoria on new drilling, but moratoria and other local regulations that have the effect of a ban have also proved legally dubious. In 2017, the Lafayette City Council passed a measure called the Climate Bill of Rights and Protections. The measure asserts that residents have a right to be free from “the extraction of coal, oil, or gas,” but fears of legal blowback led officials to strip it of any teeth. As a statewide effort in 2014 to place new restrictions on oil and gas gained momentum, Gov. John Hickenlooper brokered a compromise between local communities and industry that involved the creation of a new state task force. The task force was ineffective, and even one of its own appointed members, Longmont Mayor Brian Bagley, then a councilman, called it “a joke.”
Local residents and officials on countless occasions have petitioned the state’s main oil and gas regulator, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, regarding specific decisions, but too often they have found that the commission acts as an industry advocate. The commission by statute exists to “foster the responsible, balanced development, production, and utilization of the natural resources of oil and gas … in a manner consistent with protection of public health, safety and welfare,” and, as the implicit priorities in that language foretell, the commission fosters more than it protects. (A lawsuit known as the Martinez case — for Boulder plaintiff Xiuhtezcatl Martinez — currently before the Colorado Supreme Court could flip those priorities.)
Constituents have pleaded with officials for meaningful local control of oil and gas and have been met with condescension. Hickenlooper simply waves off any question of health and safety. A recent Extraction Oil & Gas plan to develop new wells in Broomfield illustrates that the resident-industry conflict remains urgent. A two-year process led Broomfield to agree to a development plan that includes protection provisions seen as being maximally robust under current state law. But the agreement would allow for 84 new wells in proximity to homes and neighborhoods, it was the product of acrimonious negotiations, and it left many residents bitterly disappointed.
Opponents of Proposition 112 estimate that it would place 85 percent of non-federal land in the state off-limits to new oil and gas development, effectively shutting down the industry in many parts of Colorado. A study released by the Greenwood Village-based think tank Common Sense Policy Roundtable says Proposition 112 would wipe out 147,800 jobs and result in a loss of up to $217 billion in the state’s economy over the next 12 years.
Industry advocates argue that Colorado has some of the strictest oil and gas regulations in the country and that the regulations continue to improve in ways that members of the public don’t always register. Colorado in 2014 became the first state in the country to limit oil and gas methane emissions, for example. Furthermore, they warn that mineral rights owners might bring “takings” claims and sue for loss of property if Proposition 112 is enacted. (Passage of Amendment 74, which is also on the ballot this year, could amplify the takings-claim potential.)
There is little doubt that Proposition 112 would limit fossil fuel extraction in many populated areas of the state, even in some places to elimination — but, at least in growing Front Range neighborhoods, that’s the point. The jobs that industry advocates warn would be lost include retail, health care, hospitality and other positions presumed to be supported by oil and gas activity. But Colorado enjoys a diverse, vibrant economy, and it’s not at all certain that a diminished extraction industry would devastate the economy as a whole, particularly if green energy opportunities expand. The threat of takings claims seems empty considering the experience in three states — New York, Vermont and Maryland — that have banned fracking and where, so far, the takings threat remains unrealized.
In the bigger picture, Proposition 112 comes before voters amid ubiquitous signs of a climate change emergency. The last four years saw the hottest January-June periods ever recorded on Earth. Scientists have tied climate change to a greater number of large wildfires in the West and bigger and stronger hurricanes, among other environmental disasters. This week it was reported that the climate change-denying Trump administration itself assumes global temperatures will rise an apocalyptic 7 degrees by 2100. Job losses are always lamentable, but the transition toward green energy sources is a practical and moral imperative, and Proposition 112 would play a role in achieving such progress.
Detractors label the setback measure as extreme. But what is more extreme, expanded setbacks or neighborhoods infested with heavy industry? Proposition 112 is the people’s response to an unresponsive government. As a grassroots initiative it’s imperfect. It is regrettable that it could permit local jurisdictions to impose setbacks greater even than 2,500 feet. But it’s a statutory measure, so that if in practice it proves unexpectedly onerous or unintended consequences arise, the Colorado legislature can make adjustments as deemed appropriate.
Weighed against years of official deference to industry, Proposition 112 deserves voter approval.
Quentin Young, for the editorial board, firstname.lastname@example.org, @qpyoungnews.
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