Why the anti-fracking initiatives failed

Paul Danish

The anti-fracking petition drives did not fail for lack of institutional support from environmental organizations.

According to the Denver Post, the petitioners were backed by the 350.org Action Fund, Colorado People’s Alliance, Food and Water Action Fund, Food and Water Watch and Greenpeace USA.

They did not fail for lack of money. According to the Wall Street Journal, the petitioners raised about $500,000. That was far less than the $13 million the energy industry raised to fight the measures, but it was more than enough to mount successful petition drives — especially on behalf of ballot measures that have attracted a lot of passionate volunteers.

They did not fall short because their message was drowned out by their opponents. Over the past three years, the anti-fracking movement has had no trouble getting its message out; it has probably received more earned media than just about any other environmental cause in Colorado.

They did not fail due to sloppy petitioning. According to Lynn Bartels, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State, more than 70 percent of the signatures on the two anti-fracking petitions were found to be valid, which is high compared to other petition drives. Only 58 percent of the signatures submitted by the successful petition drive for an initiative to raise the minimum wage in Colorado were valid. However the supporters of that initiative turned in 189,000 signatures.

The anti-fracking initiatives turned in 106,626 for Initiative 78 (to ban new oil and gas drilling within 2,500 feet of an inhabited structure) and 107,232 for Initiative 75 (to give local governments the power to limit or ban oil and gas development in their communities). To get on the 2016 ballot, an initiative’s petition had to have 98,492 valid signatures. The anti-fracking petitions each contained fewer than 10,000 signatures over the minimum required — which means each of them would have had to have had more than 90 percent valid signatures in order to have been approved, a near-impossible hill to climb.

Nor did the anti-fracking initiatives fail because of possible fraud on the part of the signature gatherers. Although the Secretary of State’s office seems to have uncovered one possible instance of a petitioner forging signatures — three of them — there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of systemic fraud.

The anti-fracking initiatives failed to get on the ballot because despite the best efforts of the petitioners, they couldn’t get enough people to sign the petitions — which is a nice way of saying that not very many Coloradans agreed with what they were trying to do.

And why might that have been?

My guess is it was because the case for the initiatives was fundamentally dishonest. The initiatives were portrayed as attempts to ban fracking, a particular industrial process, but their real agenda was to ban oil and natural gas production in Colorado and virtually everyone on both sides of the issue knew it.

Most Coloradans are not in favor of destroying the state’s oil and natural gas industry. They see the economic and social benefits of an industry that in 2012 contributed more than $23 billion to the state’s economy created 93,500 jobs.

It is not that they don’t see the potential environmental costs in terms of pollution and global warming. They think the risks and costs are acceptable and the benefits outweigh them, and the anti-frackers never made a convincing case to the contrary.

Beyond that, the overwhelming majority of Coloradans drive cars and heat their homes with natural gas. It doesn’t take a genius to see that banning oil and gas production is self destructive.
The initiatives’ supporters argued for replacing fossil fuels with non-carbon energy sources like wind and solar, but, most Coloradans intuitively understood that green energy alternatives that cannot be implemented in less than 10 to 20 years are not acceptable alternatives for an immediate ban on oil and gas production — and that it is both intellectually and politically dishonest to suggest they are.

Moreover, the initiative’s supporters didn’t bother to disguise the fact that they were part of a broader movement to destroy the American domestic oil and gas production, period. It didn’t take a genius to understand the consequences of that either — starting with the fact that it would require obtaining petroleum from hostile countries and possibly shedding American blood for oil.

Since 1973, there has been a national consensus on the need for the United States to achieve energy independence, or at least independence in oil and gas production. Government has been spectacularly unsuccessful in achieving that goal, but starting in 2008 the country’s oil and gas companies demonstrated the goal was achievable.

The anti-fracking movement has never spoken to why that goal should be abandoned, much less made a convincing case for abandoning it, but that is the consequence of what it is advocating. Most people intuitively understand that as well.

This opinion column does not reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.