Colorado Legislators Say Initiative 97 ‘Goes Too Far’
A nearly unanimous bipartisan panel of Colorado legislators raised their hands in opposition to Initiative 97, rejecting a proposed 2,500-foot setback measure that could threaten the state’s future oil and gas development if passed, calling it a “blunt instrument” that “goes too far” in endangering the state’s economy and thousands of jobs.
Colorado Rising, the group responsible for the measure, is awaiting the Colorado Secretary of State’s review of the more than 171,000 signatures it submitted earlier this month. Successful validation must be concluded by September 5 in order for the measure to be placed on Colorado’s November ballot.
The group of twelve Front Range and Northern Colorado legislators appeared at a Q&A panel hosted by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association at its 30th Annual Energy Summit Tuesday in Denver.
Democratic State Reps. Paul Rosenthal, Chris Hansen, and Matt Gray were joined by Republican State Reps. Susan Beckman, Hugh McKean, Polly Lawrence, Cole Wist, and Lori Saine. Republican State Senators Beth Martinez-Humenik, John Cooke, and Tim Neville were joined by their Democratic colleague, Angela Williams.
Eleven of the twelve legislators raised their hands in opposition to Initiative 97, with only Rep. Gray abstaining, and later clarifying his position to Western Wire.
“I’m in the unique position in that I’m a Democrat who represents Broomfield, who has not endorsed Initiative 97, and whose Republican opponent has,” Gray said. Republican Eric Rutherford has endorsed the measure.
Gray called Initiative 97 a “blunt instrument” that does not distinguish between rural areas that want more development and urban areas that would like to see less, and that his constituents are frustrated by the process.
“I didn’t raise my hand, I have not endorsed 97. Both of those statements are true at the same time,” Gray told Western Wire. “When I talk about these issues, coming from Broomfield, you have to talk about them at length.”
“My biggest concern about 97 is that it doesn’t treat rural operations and voluntary operations, people who want the drilling to occur, differently than people that don’t want it to occur,” Gray added, saying that the measure as written is “inflexible.”
In May, Gray sparked controversy when he spoke in support of his bill to clarify setbacks related to schools.
“If all you hear about what’s going on is what happens at this well, what you see in the newspaper, you don’t understand what that means to the residents who are affected by that. You would understand it if somebody said, ‘I want to put a fireworks factory in your district.’ People would be like, ‘What is going on, you’re going to put that next to a neighborhood?’” Gray told his colleagues on the House floor.
“They would be incredibly upset about that. If they were going to put a rat poison manufacturing facility in your district, you’d be incredibly alarmed about that,” he continued.
Last month, former Obama Interior Secretary and former Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar opposes Initiative 97, calling it “fundamentally unconstitutional” and “way off the map.” He said the Colorado Democratic Party’s executive committee decision to endorse the measure was “irresponsible.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper, the state’s top Democrat, expressed concerns over the measure’s implications on private property.
“So, it would be a serious issue. I think legitimately there will be discussions about whether that is a taking, whether the state . . . creating an initiative like that is taking the private property of people that own those leases,” Hickenlooper said in late July. “As you guys all know, many of the owners of oil and gas lease holds are retired couples, retired families, people who’ve retired. This is part of their retirement.”
Rep. Lawrence called the effects of Initiative 97 “personal” to neighbors who work in the industry and farmers and ranchers who receive royalty payments and would have a detrimental effect on school funding and teachers.
“This isn’t just about setting back those facilities 2,500 feet,” said Lawrence. “It’s also looking at the impacts that that’s going to have on your neighbors and your school district and that farmer and that rancher that depend so heavily on those royalty payments when commodity prices go down.”
“There needs to be a much better understanding of the impact this setback has,” Lawrence added. “It has no limits. It could expand greatly over time depending on who is in charge of the legislature or who is in the governor’s office.”
“Essentially Initiative 97 would ban almost all oil and gas,” Rep. Saine, who represents portions of Weld County, added, saying that the measure’s proponents have studiously avoided using the term.
“We’re talking about working families. We’re going to fight to keep their livelihood,” Saine said. “That severance tax money generated by oil and gas production pays for a lot of improvements all over the state,” not just Weld County, she said, pointing to infrastructure, roads, and other projects that oil and gas revenues contribute to state and local governments.
“Voters will not agree to ban oil and gas, and this is what this is,” Saine concluded.
Sen. Cooke, who also represents Weld County, believes the county would suffer devastating effects if the oil and gas industry was gutted by any effort to halt production.
“I don’t need to tell you how important your industry is to my district and all of Weld County,” Cooke told the COGA attendees. “If it weren’t for you, Weld County would dry up and go away.”
Sen. Williams, a Denver Democrat, said she believed, “Initiative 97 goes too far.”
“A twenty-five-hundred-foot setback is going to have an economic impact on this state that we at the legislature don’t have the money to backfill,” Williams said. “I’ve been out on rigs, I’ve watched the safety that the oil and gas industry exercises.”
Williams also said her constituents, who work in the industry, are deeply concerned about their jobs and ability to feed their families.
“I think that 97 does go too far if it’s going to take away jobs from my constituents who feed their families and pay their mortgages on,” Williams said.
Rep. Rosenthal also said the measure “goes too far, too quickly.”
“It would basically ban the oil and gas industry from Colorado,” Rosenthal said.
“The problem is this blunt force instrument is not the way to do it, it’s all of us working together,” he added, pointing to collaboration between the industry, legislators, and policy-makers on responsible regulation.
Sen. Neville told the standing-room-only crowd that the setback endangers private property rights and “picks winners and losers,” which is not the role of government.
“If you pull $32 billion of economic activity out of the state of Colorado at this point in time, do you think there is one individual or one group that is not going to be negatively impacted?” Neville asked.
For Neville, unemployment would increase and Colorado would experience a “giant sucking sound” of economic erosion as a result of the measure’s passage.
“If Jared Polis, over a four-year period, can figure out that this is a bad idea, I have confidence that Colorado voters will see through this also,” Rep. Wist said. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who is currently running for governor on the Democratic ticket, has not endorsed Initiative 97.
“Colorado voters are common sense folks, they understand the importance of the energy industry for our state’s economy,” Wist added.
He pointed to controversy in July over a Starbucks-branded “Been There Series” coffee cup featuring Colorado’s key symbols, including the outdoors, natural resources, and three oil derricks, and whether it was appropriate to feature the latter as a representation of the state’s energy economy.
“I was happy to see people from around our state who said, ‘Wait a second. Let’s remember where Colorado came from, let’s remember our roots, let’s remember the importance of the energy industry to this economy,’” Wist said. “When Colorado voters have an opportunity to look at that question, they will soundly reject Initiative 97.”
Oil and gas industry supporters launched the #oilandgasISColorado hashtag in response.