Denver is likely to see a citizens' initiative in the coming weeks intended to independently accompany Denver Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer’s recent proposal that would put power in the hands of voters when it comes to oil and gas development within city limits, mostly across Denver International Airport grounds.
There are two facets to Sawyer’s proposal, which is not yet a bill: Calling for voter approval prior to airport wells that are currently closed but could be reopened, and requiring voter approval before any new wells are drilled or fracked within the city and county of Denver.
The citizens’ initiative — which is not coordinated with Sawyer's office — would help “fill in gaps” the city government may not be able to address due to legal restrictions, including those that Sawyer said remain “murky" as a result of Senate Bill 181, which was signed into law in April by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis.
The bill requires the state to now regulate oil and gas development in a manner that “protects public health, safety and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources,” and strengthens local governments’ authority to regulate oil and gas development within their jurisdiction.
But the bill also bars an outright drilling ban, along with the prevention of the practice known as forced pooling — and that’s where a citizens’ initiative aims to step in, said Ean Tafoya, a Denver activist who has worked on several other ballot petitions, including the Green Roof Initiative.
“We do not support opening new wells," he said. "But we support a vote and want to go farther to protect us from being force pooled across our boundaries by places like Adams County and Arapahoe County. It’s not fair.”
Forced pooling happens when a non-consenting landowner sits between leaseholders who want to pool together and extract oil and gas from the land. If more than 45% of mineral owners in a certain area want to pool, the non-consenting landowner is forced to extract as well and, as compensation, receives 13% royalties for gas extraction and 16% for oil extraction.
The state of Colorado is a “big proponent” of pooling because the more leaseholders pool, the less oil and gas well heads there are on the surface of its lands, Sawyer said during a City Council policy committee meeting last week, when she announced her proposal.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the Colorado Petroleum Association did not respond to requests for comment.
Within 53 square miles of the Denver airport’s property, none of its 70-plus oil and gas wells have been producing for about a year and a half, although most of them could become active again. There are “no immediate or near or long-term plans in place today to begin production again of oil and gas at the airport,” said Rachel Marion, director of government affairs for the airport, during a Council business committee meeting in October.
But keeping the door open for future drilling doesn’t necessarily make the most sense, Sawyer said, and is “too important of a conversation to leave [Denver residents] out of it.”
“Although Denver is not currently extracting oil and gas in city limits, we find ourselves in an odd financial situation,” the councilwoman said. “We are wasting $1 million dollars of our money a year just to keep our options open for the future — and that means we’re literally wasting our resources to keep our options open so we can destroy our resources.”
Tafoya said the community is “really grateful” that Sawyer stepped forward to fight harmful environmental impacts that can come from oil and gas extraction, but the “citizens want more than that.”
That’s why he’s helping organize a ballot initiative, which is expected to be filed in the “coming weeks,” he said. “We’ve done [citizens’ initiatives] time and time again, and we think the voter base is there.”
Backup from the community could be a huge help to Sawyer, especially because existing state and federal law “would make it difficult” for the city to stop or impede oil and gas operators for accessing oil and gas resources on airport property, said Ryan Luby, a spokesman for the Denver City Attorney’s Office.
“We believe an argument could be made that the proposal would effectively create a ban,” Luby said, which existing state law does not allow.
No matter the legal battles lying ahead, the airport said it “understands and applauds the desire to move the needle on issues of climate change,” Spokeswoman Stacey Stegman said. “We are happy to work with Council, the mayor’s office and the city attorney’s office as they set policy in compliance with state and federal law.”
But Sawyer said she’s experienced some “red flags” that counter airport management’s claims of its willingness to work with her.
One example she gave to Colorado Politics was the recent postponement of her scheduled tour of the airport’s oil and gas wells, a move she found “ironic, given that I said we should plug those wells at our policy committee on Wednesday,” she tweeted Sunday night.
The tour, originally scheduled for the morning of Dec. 16, was rescheduled because it fell on the same day of the airport’s holiday lunch party, Stegman said.
Sawyer, however, isn’t convinced there isn’t something deeper at play. “Do you know anyone who has a holiday party at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning?”
Stegman said the tour, which Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore also will join, will be rescheduled after the holiday season.
Sawyer said Monday night that the airport, after being informed of her tweet, is now working to put the tour back on the calendar for Dec. 16.
Either way, Sawyer’s plan is to continue working with multiple stakeholders in an effort to bring her proposal, which currently calls for a change to the city’s charter via a voter referendum, to Denver voters on the November 2020 ballot.
Note: This story was updated with an edited quote from Ean Tafoya.