CRED (Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development) demonstrated that you could drive support for a ballot initiative from 70 percent to less than 40 percent on Election Day with a mere $35 or $40 million dollars. If you add in two or three years of positioning ads, featuring geologist Moms (“I would never put my kids at risk”) together with ranch families (“Our fracking royalties will allow us to pass along our family lands to our kids”), which preceded the 2,500-foot oil and gas drilling setback proposal better known as Proposition 112, that expenditure climbs to $50 or $60 million dollars. Needless to say, Colorado’s oil and gas industry didn’t open its wallet so generously solely because of an abiding commitment to good government.
They also tossed another $5 or $10 million behind Amendment 74 as a reminder to elected officials that they were fully capable of making state and local government miserable if 112 were to pass. While they won this battle to protect their jobs and profits, there is much to suggest this war is far from over. The impetus for the setback requirement began with those residents who found themselves directly impacted, but that remains a relatively small constituency confined to a handful of Colorado counties. And even there a division of opinion exists. Weld County, with tens of thousands of existing wells, crushed 112 at the ballot box. Oil and gas companies generously support everything from drug programs and homeless shelters to softball teams in Greeley. They are seemingly good citizens, even as the occasional processing facility catches fire.
Several weeks before November‘s election, 112 proponents brought author and environmentalist Bill McKibben to Englewood. His 1989 book, “The End of Nature,” was one of the first climate change alarms since translated into more than 20 languages. McKibben has since founded 350.org, an activist non-profit dedicated to holding global warming under 3.5 degrees Celsius. It was apparent that speakers like Tricia Nelson of Greeley, who was concerned that 24 fracking wells feed a production facility just 700 feet from her children’s elementary school, were motivated by health and safety concerns, while the majority of supporters seemed to view expanded production of fossil fuels as a crime against posterity. McKibben urged his audience to embrace the groundswell of activism that will be needed to save the planet. He noted that resistance to the consumption of fossil fuels was, “…the most important thing you and I can be doing right now!”
He implored the largely boomer crowd to consider civil disobedience. “Young people should not be providing the cannon fodder in this fight. We who were asleep at the wheel should be waging the battle for their future.” Coloradans under the age of 50 likely don’t recognize the phrase, “Stock Show Weather.” The past few years I’ve carried a down vest to the rodeo more as an insurance policy than because of the temperature. Yet, as recently as the ‘ 70s, January temperatures in Denver frequently fell into the teens, even sub-zero at night. 4-H contestants tended propane heaters for their show animals. Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed, “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true. The other is to refuse to accept what is true.”
It’s hard to sell the notion that global warming is a hoax in a state where the ski season starts later, ends earlier and produces less runoff than it did just 20 years ago. Colorado ranchers and farmers also observe this change. Wildfires and drought are not imaginary threats. They demand ever more public resources in order to protect Colorado’s land and water. As public concern continues to grow, it won’t be long before the 40 percent already willing to leave oil and gas in the ground will return to the ballot box. Next time, however, their goals are likely to be about more than setbacks. Oil and gas messaging claimed 112 would shut down their industry. That might be just fine with voters who would prefer to turn down the thermostat.
Even if you suspect the dangers of climate change are overblown, there is something to be said for erring on the side of caution. Renewable energy is now cheaper, cleaner and employs more workers than fossil fuels. Someone, somewhere has to lead this transition and it doesn’t look like that leadership will come from Congress. Colorado was the first state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana. Half a dozen states have since followed our lead. CRED might be well served to negotiate a truce with its critics. Otherwise it best keep on pouring dollars into campaign accounts. Of course, the policy argument next time will not be confined to economic impacts. It also may prove difficult to persuade every politician with a pulse to oppose restrictions.