Oil/gas rep: Anti-fracking groups are well-funded, too

Courtesy photo
B.J. Nikkel

A spokesperson for the oil and gas industry is claiming that local anti-fracking groups benefit from just as much financial support as the industry when it comes to campaigning on the upcoming oil and gas ballot measures in Boulder and Lafayette.

The allegation has drawn laughter from activists.

Former state Rep. B.J. Nikkel has been hired as a consultant by iKue Strategies, thanks to funding from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), to serve as a spokesperson for the industry regarding several of the proposed bans and moratoriums on oil and gas exploration along the Front Range.

Nikkel told Boulder Weekly that concerns about the health risks associated with oil and gas operations like hydraulic fracturing (fracking) have been vastly exaggerated, that the industry is effectively regulated by the government, that environmental activists have been resorting to “scare tactics” and that the local antifracking groups are the beneficiaries of hundreds of thousands of dollars of spending from national nonprofit groups.

She says it’s not David versus Goliath, not the wealthy oil and gas industry and COGA bankrolling campaigns against the bans and moratoriums backed by meagerly funded activist groups.

“I think that’s really disingenuous for that perspective to be said by these local groups,” Nikkel says, noting that the “radical” Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund helped Lafayette’s activists with the language of Question 300 in that city. “Let’s look at these other organizations, these national organizations that came in and wrote these initiatives for them. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, Frack Free Colorado, Clean Water Action, do you really think they aren’t spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on all of these efforts, beginning more than a year ago?”

When BW pointed out that municipal campaign finance disclosure reports show that, in Boulder for instance, COGA has donated $110,237 to Boulder Citizens for Rational Energy Decisions, compared to the $3,802 raised by the Yes on 2H committee, Nikkel claimed she was unclear on the specifics of the discrepancy.

“I don’t have the monetary, all that stuff, right here in front of me, I’m just an advisor to these organizations, so I don’t really get involved in the campaign finance end of it,” she told BW.

When asked whether she thinks that the playing field is even, Nikkel replies, “I think it’s even, yeah. But this is the difference, and I think this is worthy of mentioning, is that our side of it is transparent about where the money comes from, whereas theirs isn’t. They want to make these disingenuous claims that, ‘Oh, poor them, they get no funding and COGA’s this big, bad organization,’ but the fact is they are getting tons and hundreds of thousands of dollars of support.”

She says that because national groups like the Sierra Club and Food and Water Watch are nonprofit, 501(c)4 organizations, they don’t have to reveal their donors, and expenses can be hidden.

Local committees would still be required to disclose all contributions they received, of course, but Nikkel says even if national groups are not contributing directly to the campaign committees, they are still spending money on their behalf.

She says it’s misleading for local groups like East Boulder County United to “depict themselves as this meager group who is battling, you know, a corporation, when in fact they have their own nonprofit organizations that are spending thousands upon thousands of dollars in hidden support to write the initiatives, get the signatures, pay people to get the signatures, to go out and canvass, to pay for all the literature that’s been given out, and has been over a year. … It’s not the little guy against the big guy in this whole issue, it’s pretty even-steven out there.”

Area fractivists say they find Nikkel’s claims ludicrous.

“An obviously ridiculous claim,” Phil Doe, environmental issues director for Be the Change, said via email when asked to respond to Nikkel’s assertions. “It must come from the same nonsense factory where the oil boys coined the whopper that there has never been any groundwater contamination from fracking. Seems like the greater the lie, the higher the volume with which it is delivered. The resistance to fracking is from citizens, spending their own time and money to protect themselves, their property and their families from drilling in their neighborhoods. If now and then other citizens and citizen groups rise to their defense, that hardly constitutes a gusher of money. The gushers have always been on the other side.”

East Boulder County United (EBCU) Treasurer Merrily Mazza agreed, noting that all of her group’s signature-gatherers were local volunteers.

“The assertion that these groups are heavily funding local anti-fracking campaigns is laughable, but typical of oil and gas talking points,” she told BW, noting that of the $7,500 her group plans to spend on the campaign, they received $1,000 from MoveOn.org, $2,500 from the Sierra Club and about $150 worth of consulting from Food & Water Watch.

“That’s it — the sum total of what EBCU has received from environmental or other national groups,” Mazza said. “We’ve never received a contribution from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, Clean Water Action or anyone else. All other contributions to EBCU have been local, individual donors. Oil and gas is indeed pouring money into the local anti-fracking campaigns — $67,000 in Lafayette alone, much more in Fort Collins and Broomfield. EBCU pales in comparison. We’ve been almost totally funded by local donors giving small amounts. That’s an ‘even playing field’?

“It’s also funny that the local group members — who actually live in the communities — bust their butts to organize speakers; walk turfs with community volunteers; get mailers and yard signs designed, printed and distributed; communicate via websites and email, and COGA outsources its efforts to a consulting firm in Denver,” she continues.

“There’s a real grassroots effort — buy it! At least COGA didn’t outsource the work to India — there’s that.”

Similarly, Neshama Abraham of Yes on 2H in Boulder told BW that her group has not received funding from the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund or Clean Water Action.

Nikkel also downplays the possible health risks associated with oil and gas extraction activities.

“There have been study after study, dozens and dozens of studies, and independent studies, and studies even by the EPA, that show that hydraulic fracturing is done safely, and they can’t show any kind of ill health effects,” she says.

When asked if she thinks there are no risks associated with oil and gas extraction, she replies, “I’m not saying that, I’m just saying it’s so strictly regulated, that I think scare tactics are being used to freak people out and make them think that they are at risk, when I don’t believe that they are. … I see no real information that shows me definitively that there are cases cited, legitimate cases cited, as issues with any health effects. I really believe it’s hype.”

When asked about the May 2012 University of Colorado study showing elevated risks of cancer and other health problems among those living within a half-mile of wells, and the 2011 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing increased levels of propane and other emissions in Erie’s air, Nikkel replied, “I haven’t read the studies that you’re talking about, so I’m not sure what exactly they say.”

When asked to respond to Nikkel’s claims, Doe notes that there has not been enough research on the fairly new method of horizontal drilling.

“There have been no national studies, and those that have been undertaken by the EPA have either been shut down or denuded as the result of industry pressure,” he says. “And those that have been completed, such as that by our [CU] School of Public Health, are simply ignored.

“In a very real sense, there is no regulation, there is only a book of rules that the state, using basically an honor system, hopes the industry observes,” Doe continues. “How would that approach work with traffic signs and speed limits? I don’t think the oil and gas boys are necessarily a better class of citizen than your average driver, and without severe penalties for traffic violations and a large police force for enforcement, the highways would be chaos. What do you think that means for the oil patch if we allow our worst impulses, such as greed and self-dealing, to reign supreme?”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com