Initiative 97: Oil and gas setback proposal makes November ballot

An oil storage tank and a drilling rig sit beside a ranch near the town of Mead in Weld County in 2017. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

The initiative that may have had the hardest road to November’s ballot — Initiative 97, which would expand buffers between occupied buildings, “vulnerable areas” and new oil and natural gas development from 500 to 2,500 feet — has been certified by Colorado’s secretary of state.

Proponents turned in 172,834 signatures, and a random sample deemed more than 123,000 of those signatures valid. That’s well in excess of the 98,492 signatures required to get a citizen initiative onto the ballot.

Initiative 97 is a statutory measure, meaning it can pass with 50 percent plus one of the vote.

According to a fiscal analysis, the measure creates the buffer between homes, hospitals, schools and “vulnerable areas” defined as “playgrounds, permanent sports fields, amphitheaters, public parks, public open space, public and community drinking water sources, irrigation canals, reservoirs, lakes, rivers, perennial or intermittent streams, and creeks.” Additional vulnerable areas can also be designated either by the state or by a local government, the analysis said.

With the inclusion of Initiative 97, there are now six citizen-initiative measure on the November ballot. There’s one more in review: a proposal that would change campaign finance limits when a candidate or campaign contributes more than $1 million. There are another six questions submitted to voters by the Colorado General Assembly that will also appear on the ballot.

A dozen questions will now face voters in November: two that would fund transportation, albeit in very different ways; a ballot measure to raise taxes on incomes above $150,000 to fund K-12 education; a 36-percent cap on interest rates and fees for payday loans; and a constitutional measure that would force local or state governments to reimburse property owners when their property is devalued, a measure funded by the oil and gas industry.

It’s the oil and gas industry most annoyed by the latest measure to make the ballot. Within 10 minutes of the secretary of state’s announcement that Initiative 97 had qualified, the Colorado Petroleum Council launched the first salvo.

“While the opponents of this job-killing measure consider their options regarding today’s announcement, it bears repeating that this measure, if ultimately enacted, will define our state’s economy and job opportunities for generations to come,” according to Colorado Petroleum Council Executive Director Tracee Bentley. “If passed, Initiative 97 could devastate the economic livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Coloradans, both in and out of the energy industry. Entire communities would involuntarily find themselves closed for business. Tax revenues would plummet, crippling essential funding for education and health care across the state.”

Initiative 97 proponent Anne Lee Foster called the comments a “typical Chicken Little scare tactic.” She said the industry regularly talks about how it can drill for miles underground, but that Initiative 97 just moves surface development a little further away from communities, which she said is in line with health studies and current practices by first responders.

According to a statement from Colorado Rising, which backs Initiative #97, firefighters and first responders “frequently use one-half mile or more as the evacuation radius when there are fires, explosions and gas leaks, such as the emergency evacuation of a high school football game in Greeley last fall.” They noted that in 2017, more than a dozen serious fires and explosions occurred at oil and gas drilling sites and more than a thousand complaints filed over issues such as “contaminated water, an inability to sleep or work due to noxious fumes and extremely loud noise to headaches, nosebleeds, asthma and other grave health impacts.”

“These operations are close to communities and homes” and cause cancer,” Foster said, adding that explosions — such as the one in Firestone last year that killed two people — are a huge risk.

“This is about public health and safety” and preserving the long-term quality of life in the state, Foster noted.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association also weighed in Wednesday, stating the measure risks 147,800 good-paying jobs, “more than $1 billion in taxes for schools, parks and libraries, and our nation’s energy security.” Dan Haley of COGA said a “half-mile setback is a blatant attempt by activists to ban oil and natural gas in Colorado and put working families on the unemployment line.”

The Colorado Alliance of Mineral and Royalty Owners estimated that 85 percent of “non-federal land would be unavailable for new oil and gas development. Weld County, the county with the most oil and gas production in Colorado, would be unable to develop 78 percent of its surface acreage.”

And Vital for Colorado, a coalition of business leaders who back the energy industry, said in a statement that “this deceptive and economically destructive ballot measure is already opposed by the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor – and that is just the tip of the iceberg. The massive bipartisan coalition formed in opposition to this measure has already taken shape and continues to grow.”

The ballot measure faced more than its share of unusual hurdles during the signature-collection process. Proponents claimed their petition gatherers were harassed, and a company hired to collect those signatures absconded with 20,000 signatures. The petitions were later returned but were unusable.

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