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Opinion Columns

Opinion: This is how democracy works in Colorado

The signing of SB-181 into law was a monumental event in Colorado — a moment decades in the making.

The law will finally put the health and safety of communities ahead of corporate profits and give communities a voice in oil and gas development in their neighborhoods.

As a relative newbie in political activism (thanks Trump for the induction into a new realm), this was the first piece of legislation that I was really engaged in from the beginning to the end.

Ning Mosberger-Tang

It was fascinating to see close up how this bill evolved and got through the legislative process over a period of six weeks. I have learned a few things along the way about how democracy works.

First of all, I am happy to report that the legislative process works! This bill originated from the grassroots, raised urgent and legitimate concerns of citizens, and proposed reasonable solutions that could address these concerns without going overboard.

The bill went through robust debates in both chambers where the opinions of both sides were heard. Amendments were added and compromises were made, but as pointed out by Sen. Steve Fenberg in the signing ceremony, the principle behind the bill — that the health and safety of communities must come first — was never up for negotiation.

The oil and gas industry spent millions of dollars trying to undermine that principle, but the legislators stayed firm throughout the process.

That’s how democracy works — the voice of the people should always come first, not the special interests. Democracy is about people.

Secondly, I was seriously blown away by the level of grassroots engagement in supporting this bill. Hundreds of citizens showed up to provide testimonies, lobby their legislators by phone, email and in person.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

The League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans (LOGIC), a citizens group, as well as Indivisible groups, rallied hundreds of people to show up in the Capitol.

Our Indivisible group ran six email campaigns asking people to send messages to their legislators at different stages of the bill. Hundreds of individuals took actions, and some of them took actions time and again.

Engaged citizens created invaluable support and encouragement for the legislators with a level of enthusiasm that the opponents of the bill, who were often paid by the oil and gas industry, were simply unable to match.

That’s how democracy works — citizens fully engage and boldly claim their seats in the room. Democracy is about showing up.

Thirdly, I was impressed by how everybody worked together. The environmental coalition, co-led by Conservation Colorado, worked side by side with grassroots groups in supporting the bill.

They worked diligently to raise funding and run campaigns to timely counteract false or exaggerated messages distributed by the oil and gas industry.

They provided manpower and organizational skills to support grassroots activists and LOGIC to ensure that the citizens’ voice will be heard loud and clear in the Capitol.

Some groups may have preferred stronger bills, for example, to enact a fracking ban or a bigger setback. A reasonable bill like SB-181 could have been derailed by oppositions from the environmental camp, as demonstrated by the fate of Washington’s 2016 carbon tax initiative.

Thankfully, an early indication of the viability of the bill surfaced in an informational event we organized for the bill before it was introduced in the legislature.

Some of the groups we were particularly concerned about either stayed quiet or came out and said that even though this bill wasn’t perfect, it was still a good bill worth supporting (or at least not worth resisting).

Sure enough, we didn’t suffer opposition from the environmental camp that would undermine the bill.

That’s how democracy works — people who share the common goals work together hand in hand and sometimes take compromises to move things forward. Democracy isn’t an individual sport; it’s a team sport.

Finally, the signing of the bill was only the first step toward better regulations of oil and gas operations in Colorado. Next comes the agency rulemaking. Local governments will also need to take charge.

Our legislators have done their job, and now it will require the engagement of grassroots and the environmental coalition to put the bill into action. We’re not done yet, but we have taken the first, vital step.

Ning Mosberger-Tang is a photographer based in Boulder. She is also an organizer of Indivisible Colorado Environment group.