Chris Goodwin’s pitch opens with the same question every time: “Are you a Colorado voter?”
He has been wandering the streets of Boulder, asking that question over and over. Many people say no – or ignore him – until he brings up the f-word: fracking.
In recent weeks, millions of dollars have been spent on a fight over two ballot initiatives in Colorado. Taken together, initiatives 75 and 78 would seriously restrict oil and gas development in the state. The fight is on between those for, and against, the measures. The first battle: signatures.
In order to get a measure on the November ballot, supporters need to collect and submit 98,492 signatures to the Secretary of State by August 8th.
Which is why Chris Goodman needs to know: “Are you a Colorado voter?” He was hired to collect signatures by an issue committee sponsored by environmental groups backing the ballot measure.
The interaction with Deborah Larrabee was a typical one. She didn’t initially respond to Goodwin’s question, but then, he dropped the f-word. That stopped Larrabee in her tracks. She is not a fan of fracking, as she told Goodwin before signing both petitions.
The ballot initiatives are actually not about fracking, in the technical sense of the word, but rather about oil and gas more broadly. One would give local governments the authority to regulate development. The other would increase the mandatory distance between an oil and gas facility and places like schools, homes and parks—from 500 feet to 2,500 feet.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Commission estimates that if the setback measure were to take effect, 90 percent of land in Colorado would be off-limits to new oil and gas development. That sort of limitation would affect jobs and revenue. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in Colorado in 2015, about 25,000 people worked in the industry.
Which is why the ballot initiatives have attracted $15.46 million in contributions from those for and against, before even making it onto the ballot.
The contributions have been lopsided, though: Groups trying to keep the measures off the ballot have collected more than 35 times what the groups behind the ballot measures have collected.
- The committees behind the ballot initiatives – Yes For Health and Safety Over Fracking and Yes for Local Control Over Oil and Gas – have collected $424,021. This includes cash donations and non-monetary contributions like services and staff time.
- Half of pro-ballot measure contributions have come from individuals. U.S. Congressman Jared Polis and his father each donated $25,000. Greenpeace, 350.org and Food & Water Watch have also made significant contributions, particularly in consulting and staffing.
- Pro-ballot measure groups have spent $250,885 so far. The largest payee is signature-gathering company Localized Strategies. They’ve also spent money on legal fees, printing and advertising.
- The issue committees opposing the ballot initiatives – Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy, and Energy Independence (Protect Colorado); Vote No On 75/78; and Coloradans for Responsible Reform – have collected $15,040,665.
- 95 percent of that money has come from oil and gas companies: Anadarko and Noble are the single biggest contributors, donating $5.5 million and $5 million respectively. The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce also contributed.
- Ballot measure opposition groups have spent $5,059,256 so far; 97 percent of that money has gone to Pac/West, an Oregon-based communications firm.
Pac/West, the largest recipient of the anti-ballot measure money, didn’t return Inside Energy’s phone calls, but Karen Crummy did. She’s the Communication Director for Protect Colorado, one of the issue committees opposing the ballot measures.
Protect Colorado has paid Pac/West almost $5 million to run its campaign. Crummy said she didn’t know the specifics of how the money is being spent but that it is the usual stuff: media, polling, outreach, etc.
As with the environmental groups, there is also a ground game. It includes people dressed up as gigantic pencils. They’re part of a ‘decline to sign’ campaign.
Inside Energy sent intern Katy Canada down to the 16th Street Mall in Denver to talk to them. The people in pencil costumes didn’t want to be interviewed and eventually complained to a nearby police officer about Katy’s presence on the public walkway.
Karen Crummy says the message they are communicating to passersby is simple: “Read what you’re about to sign. Your signature is valuable.”
For the oil and gas companies…extremely valuable.
“This isn’t just trying to add a new regulation or something. This would wipe out the whole industry,” Crummy said.
Back in Boulder, Chris Goodwin asked Barbara Tyler if she would sign his petitions.
“Fracking?” she said. “Absolutely!”
Tyler lives in Colorado but is from Oklahoma, where the landscape is dotted with wells. Her dad worked in oil and gas, but she is deeply worried about the environmental impacts of fracking. With a sigh, Tyler explains that she “doesn’t want to destroy stuff.”