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Fringe Activists vs. Colorado Energy

First published by the Pueblo Chieftain

Next month, Colorado voters will decide whether to stymie a thriving industry for ideological purposes.

If passed, Proposition 112 would greatly expand the existing no-drilling zones surrounding occupied buildings. That would effectively prohibit Colorado oil and gas firms, which support 230,000 local jobs and add $31 billion annually to the state economy, from drilling new wells.

Grounded in science and countless studies, Colorado already has strict, common sense boundaries to protect public health and the environment: 500 feet for homes and 1,000 feet for high-occupancy buildings, such as offices and schools. Prop 112 unnecessarily ratchets up the existing setbacks to 2,500 feet — nearly half a mile — creating a patchwork of prohibited zones that would render 85 percent of all non-federal land off limits to energy extraction, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

The consequences would be dire. Once existing wells deplete, the state will have to import oil and gas at greater cost from other states, even requiring new long-distance pipelines. At risk are 140,000 direct Colorado jobs and $7 billion in Colorado’s gross domestic product in the first five years of the de facto ban.

The state’s budget would certainly suffer. Oil and gas companies are a crucial source of public revenue, paying over $1 billion a year in state taxes. Most of that revenue is earmarked specifically for vital public services.

Consider the Colorado Land Board, a state agency responsible for 4 million acres of energy assets. This board generates hundreds of millions of dollars every year through user fees and taxes. And 95 percent of its revenues go to public education. If energy companies can’t drill, that income will fade away. Schools would be forced to find new funding — ironic, given another ballot measure to raise taxes for education.

It’s no wonder, then, that educators staunchly oppose Prop 112. Bob Schaffer, the headmaster of Liberty Common School in Fort Collins, has condemned it as “irresponsible” and “dangerous.”

Green activists claim Prop 112 is an environmental imperative. “We are protecting homes, schools, playgrounds, and water sources,” boasted Anne Lee Foster, a chief organizer of Colorado Rising, the group that led the signature collection drive to put Prop 112 on the ballot.

Foster and allies have focused their ire on “fracking,” an innovative drilling technique. When companies frack a well, they pump water, sand and a small amount of lubricants into underground rock formations at high pressure. This mix creates fissures in the rock, allowing companies to extract the embedded oil and gas. Activists claim the expanded buffer zones will prevent fracking from polluting local waterways with dangerous chemicals.

Yet fracking has been examined thoroughly and found safe. Twenty-six separate studies, including one from Colorado State University, have concluded that fracking does not contaminate groundwater. There is no scientific evidence that increasing the setback distance would improve health or protect anyone from anything — it is a political ploy designed to stymie an essential industry.

The de facto drilling ban contained in Prop 112 is the latest battle in the keep-it-in-the-ground war against fossil fuels. New York state outright banned fracking; Colorado’s proposition is the back-door version of the same thing. That’s why the Washington D.C.-based lobbying group Food and Water Watch gifted $160,000 to Colorado Rising’s issues committee.

Colorado policies should be up to Coloradans, not special interest groups in Washington. And it is a colossal waste that the petroleum industry has had to pony up significant monies for an unnecessary political fight, funds that could have gone to employees or shareholders, not to mention to new drilling efforts to reduce energy costs for consumers.

Historically, Coloradans has proven they can successfully balance environmental and economic concerns. Regulators have set smart rules that protect precious national resources and ensure public health. Colorado was the first state in the country to require water sampling around drilling sites and the first to require methane capture. At the same time, energy developers have always been afforded the flexibility needed to grow and generate wealth.

Prop 112 threatens this balance. Let’s hope voters see through the ruse come Nov. 6.

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