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Erin Martinez, center, listens as Gov. Jared Polis speaks at a 2019 news conference announcing Senate Bill 181, new regulations on the oil and gas industry. To her left is Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

A dark-money conservative political organization allied with the oil and gas industry is taking aim at Colorado’s governor and a new administration report on health impacts from drilling operations, declaring “it’s time to fight back” against “Jared’s junk science.”

The attack — airing on radio stations and appearing online — is the most aggressive assault to date from oil and gas industry’s allies on Democratic Gov. Jared Polis and suggests an end to the informal truce between the two that dates back to the 2018 campaign.

“Jared Polis and Colorado Democrats are so out of touch,” the radio commercial starts. “Polis is targeting the men and women who work in the oil and gas industry again.”

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The minute-long advertisement from Defend Colorado that debuted Wednesday points listeners to a website,, which mischaracterizes the nature of the new research on health impacts from oil and gas.

The effort is designed to dismiss a study released days earlier by the Polis administration that shows drilling operations may lead to short-term health effects, such as headaches and nosebleeds, for people who live within 2,000 feet from a drilling site. Instead, it points to prior research from 2018 that shows most oil and gas emissions are well below the health guidelines. “Jared’s junk science can’t erase these facts,” the ad’s narrator states. 

The state’s chief oil and gas regulator immediately implemented more stringent reviews on certain drilling applications after the latest study’s release, and industry critics called for a halt in new permits.

To the organization behind the campaign, it’s all part of a strategy to renew a push for increasing the setbacks between homes and drilling rigs, a version of which voters rejected in a 2018 ballot measure known as Proposition 112. The larger setbacks would limit drilling and hurt the $30 billion industry, the group contends.

“We believe that what the report does is basically lay out a scare tactic that provides a club for the anti-energy groups to just run around and say there is a problem,” said Sean Duffy, a spokesman for Defend Colorado, in an interview.

“We feel really strongly that this is a way in which the governor is able to accomplish his policy goals by any means necessary,” he added. “So that’s why we are cranky.”

A pickup truck drives toward an illuminated drilling rig very close Highway 66 north of Longmont on June 29, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The governor’s office declined to answer questions about Defend Colorado’s accusations but issued a statement Friday calling the new study “an important data point.” Polis earlier said the study reinforced the need for more stringent regulations and demonstrated a need for more testing. 

The oil and gas industry pushed back against the report’s findings after its release, but it appears to be keeping its distance from Defend Colorado. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association issued a statement to The Sun that denied any ties to the website. A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, which has an affiliate in Colorado, declined to comment.

MORE: Potential for short-term health impacts from Colorado oil and gas drilling leads to calls for temporary halt in permits

A rocky relationship defines Polis’ work with oil and gas industry

It’s not the first time the oil and gas industry butted heads with Polis. Back in 2014, the then-congressman financed a series of ballot measures to increase setbacks and give local governments more power to regulate the drilling in their communities. The measures drew fierce opposition from the industry.

But in the 2018 campaign, the two sides reached a detente, of sorts. Polis courted oil and gas executives in his bid and promised an open dialogue if elected. The industry still spent money to boost his Republican opponent but the olive branch that helped tame the spending.

The industry launched a TV advertising campaign against tougher energy regulations in Senate Bill 181 during the legislative session, but the attacks focused on Democratic lawmakers and left Polis unmentioned even though he was a key proponent of the measure, which was ultimately amended to the industry’s benefit.

“I think there was some acknowledgment that perhaps Jared was more likely than not to be the governor, so let’s try to find a way to work together,” Duffy said.

But the rollout of the new study and additional regulatory actions Oct. 17 represented a breaking point. The quick release of the blistering attack on Polis and Democrats is just a reflection of “the battlefield that’s set before us,” Duffy said.

The website featured in the ad asks its supporters to call Polis and three Democratic lawmakers — Senate President Leroy Garcia, Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada and Rep. Mary Young of Greeley — to “tell them to stop the fear mongering.”

Duffy couldn’t explain why these three lawmakers are targeted, but Garcia was the subject of a recall effort, Zenzinger faces reelection next year in a swing district and Young represents a district in Weld County, which is the state’s top top oil and gas producer. All three lawmakers told The Sun they had not seen the website and so far weren’t getting phone calls from industry supporters.

Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia speaks to reporters on Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“We are also putting down a marker that you can’t get away with making bald assertions that are incontestable,” said Duffy, a top aide to former Republican Gov. Bill Owens.

Defend Colorado is fighting tougher regulations on oil and gas operations and emissions standards that it believes will hurt the state’s economy. It is also running TV ads against Proposition CC, the November ballot measure regarding state revenue limits. Duffy declined to identify the donors behind the new effort, or to say how much the group planned to spend.

MORE: Colorado’s oil and gas industry voices its concerns. But Gov. Jared Polis dismisses them.

Defend Colorado advertising misstates scientific research

The new 380-page study commissioned by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment takes a new approach in pairing actual emissions data from 2014 through 2016 in Weld and Garfield counties and meteorological data to create a model that forecasts potential health risks.

In the worst-case scenario, the researchers found that exposure to benzene and other chemicals for short periods of time can impact the health of people who live near drilling operations. The models did not find a risk for longer-term health effects related to the cancer-causing chemicals. Colorado health officials said their testing over 5,000 hours of field monitoring has not found emissions at the levels described in the models.

The Defend Colorado attack blames Polis for spending tax dollars on the new report — but in fact, it was former Gov. John Hickenlooper who ordered the review as part of the task force that came from a compromise deal to keep Polis’ setback proposals off the ballot in 2014.

The radio commercial and website also point to a 2018 study conducted by state public health officials about emissions near oil and gas operations that the organization believes shows drilling “to be safe.” The study did find “a low risk of harm” for chronic and acute health effects linked to exposure, but Defend Colorado overstates the findings by ignoring certain numbers about benzene levels and caveats about the limited sampling data.

The group calls last year’s study “rock solid research” in part because it was peer-reviewed and published in a respected journal. But it fails to acknowledge that the new study met similar stringent standards to appear in a different journal and statistical modeling is common research method to predict possible real-world scenarios.

A spokeswoman for the state’s public health director, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, issued a statement defending the research.

“A peer-reviewed journal published the study, which means it was evaluated and accepted by scientists,” spokeswoman Jessica Bralish wrote. “The study adds to the body of knowledge we have on oil and gas development and its potential health impacts, and it will help guide additional research.”

John Frank

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.