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Politics and Government

Colorado’s oil and gas battlefield (and campaign cash) is shifting to local elections

The industry already spends millions fighting municipal ballot measures and supporting candidates in areas where they operate

Extraction Oil & Gas drilling rig on the Coyote Trails pad is visible behind houses along Tundra Circle in Erie on Thursday, April 4, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to the Colorado Sun)
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Gov. Jared Polis suggested Colorado’s “oil and gas wars … are over” when he signed sweeping new industry regulations into law this month. But really, the battlefield just shifted.

The new law empowers counties and municipalities to exert more authority over oil and gas development, reversing the prior approach that gave the state preemptive control on most rules regarding drilling.

But the move is expected to only heighten the industry’s focus on local elections, whether contests for governing boards or potential ballot measures.

“That’s where the fighting is going to be,” said Chris Jackson, a Denver attorney who follows campaign finance. “It’s just going to devolve to the local level — the oil and gas industry and the activists who would oppose their activities.”

Dan Haley, the CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, agreed. “I think 181 changes the politics a little bit, and they’ve made this about local control and local elections,” Haley said. “I can imagine that (environmental) activists will probably be in those areas as well, looking at city halls and county commissions.”

MORE: Gov. Polis signs Democrats’ sweeping oil and gas bill into law, marking a major shift

Oil and gas interests spend big in state level elections. But the industry also pumped at least $1.4 million in the last six years in council races and ballot initiatives in several localities where oil and gas development created controversy, according to campaign finance records.

Often, the money was directed toward stopping local ballot measures resembling the new law signed last week. At other times, the spending covered the cost of campaign ads that supported candidates friendly to the industry and opposed those hostile to it.

The total spending calculated by The Colorado Sun came from campaign finance documents from a half dozen cities, as well as political activity reports filed by Anadarko Petroleum and Noble Energy, the two large public companies that file such disclosures, and tax forms filed by Vital for Colorado, an industry advocacy organization.

The number is probably low. For example, Vital spent at least $720,000 on municipal elections from 2015 through 2018, based on local government records examined by the Sun.

But its federal tax records show total spending of nearly $6 million from 2013 to 2017. Most of that money was spent on consultants or media purchases. The dark-money group also is not required to report the sources of its money.

A spokesman for Vital for Colorado said the organization will remain focused on preventing regulations that may harm the oil and gas industry, no matter the level of government.

MORE: How would new regulations impact the oil and gas industry in Colorado? Here’s what we know.

“Vital for Colorado is focused on repealing and preventing illegal energy bans in places like Adams and Boulder counties,” said spokesman Rich Coolidge in a statement. “In general, we see this as less about elections and more about making sure local governments hear pro-business voices and understand how policies affect Colorado workers and their families.”

Broomfield’s Question 301 shows disparity in campaign cash

In 2017, Vital provided more than half — nearly $234,000 — of the $475,000 spent by the oil and gas industry to fight a successful ballot initiative in Broomfield to make health and safety greater priorities in the permitting of oil and gas operations. The money against Question 301 went to TV ads, phone calls and more, many of them featuring former Republican Gov. Bill Owens. Most of the ads talked about “outside interests” trying to influence city policy.

On the other side, about $46,000 was spent by two groups in favor of Question 301, which was approved by 57% of Broomfield voters.

Guyleen Castriotta was among 301’s supporters, and she won a seat on Broomfield City Council despite oil and gas support for one of her opponents. She expects the money from the big corporations to continue to flow after the new law.

“Now that 181 allows more local control and the ability to deny permits as needed, I think we’re going to see some money poured behind candidates that are more industry friendly,” Castriotta said, noting that Broomfield holds its next council election in November.

Meanwhile, she said she hears from constituents about problems with drilling at a site approved before she joined the council.  “Every few minutes I get complaint emails about the odors and the noise,” she added.

When it comes to candidates, Vital often forms independent spending groups with the words “stronger economy” in the name.

For instance, the nonprofit put $100,000 into the political group Greeley for a Stronger Economy in 2017, which supported four candidates. Among the mailers sent by the political action committee were some attacking candidates who received $500 donations from Polis. The governor has been invoked as a frequent boogeyman for the industry because of his past opposition to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

All of the candidates supported by the Vital money won, and Mayor John Gates was among them. With Greeley’s next election in November, the mayor said it’s difficult to predict the local political impact of the new law.

“I wish I knew. I really don’t know,” Gates said. “I will have a better feel in June or July.”

The oil and gas industry holds a rally outside of the Colorado Capitol on March 5, 2019, ahead of the first committee hearing for Senate Bill 181. The legislation would add significant new regulation to the industry and is being brought by Democrats. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Vital Colorado spends big for the industry at the local level

Vital put $75,000 into the political committee Thornton for a Stronger Economy in 2017 and $55,000 into an independent spending entity in Erie’s 2018 municipal elections.

The Aurora Sentinel reported that Vital put $100,000 into the 2017 elections, although the city clerk says there is no longer any record of the spending because the records are only retained for a year.

MORE: Here’s how much the oil and gas industry spent on the 2018 statewide election in Colorado

And Vital isn’t the only group funding efforts at the municipal level.

An organization in Broomfield sent mostly positive mailers supporting council candidates in 2017, although most of the group’s money came from the Colorado Economic Leadership Fund, a nonprofit affiliated with the business group Colorado Concern.

Anadarko also reported directly spending $327,542 on “Colorado local ballot issues to ban hydraulic fracking” in 2013. Anadarko reported donating $607,000 to Vital for Colorado in the most recent three years.

Noble Energy gave nearly $358,000 to Vital from 2016 through 2018, based on past political activity reports.

Both Noble and Anadarko report on corporate political spending annually, which is a voluntary filing for public companies. Chevron and Occidental Petroleum are in a bidding war to buy Anadarko, which could change the political landscape. Chevron hasn’t reported spending as much on Colorado political efforts, but the company is active in other states such as California, New Mexico and Utah. Occidental didn’t spend on state or local politics in Colorado at all in 2018.

It’s unclear where Vital’s other funding originated. Nonprofits aren’t required to disclose their donors, and Coolidge didn’t reply to a question about the source of a $2.15 million donation listed on the group’s 2017 tax form.

One area where the oil and gas industry appears to be less active is county commission contests.

Anadarko spent $6,000 on donations to county commission candidates in Weld, Adams and Jefferson counties in 2014 and 2016, the Sun review found. And Vital put $55,000 into a state-level PAC in 2016 that spent money on county commission contests in Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties.

County cash limits coincide with the new attention

An unrelated measure Polis signed into law this year limits individual campaign contributions to county-level candidates to $1,250. Bill sponsor Rep. Emily Sirota, D-Denver, supported the tougher regulations on the oil and gas industry.

“It is certainly a timely piece of legislation because I do believe local governments will be eyed in a way that perhaps they haven’t in the past because of the kind of authority that this bill grants them,” Sirota said.

Sarah Loflin expects campaign money will begin flowing in county contests. She’s the executive director of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, a supporter of the local regulation law that has fought back against the industry in past municipal elections.

“If I had to guess, I would look at where their existing open permits are, and that would be Adams County and Arapahoe County,” she said.

Loflin predicted the industry will continue to fight at the municipal level, where budgets are often too small to battle legal threats. And she noted the efforts to overturn the new law statewide.

“I’m sure they are going to make a run at both municipal elections and the state level ballot,” she said.

Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.

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