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Colorado governor strikes deal on oil and gas measures, but advocates say it won’t end ballot wars

Key environmental leaders were not included in Gov. Jared Polis' agreement, and some are considering future ballot questions on oil and gas

Gov. Jared Polis speaks before signing Senate Bill 181 on Tuesday, April 16, 2019, in his office at the Colorado Capitol. Looking on is Erin Martinez, right, whose husband and brother were killed when their Firestone home exploded in 2017. On the left is Martinez' daughter.(Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Gov. Jared Polis declared a truce in the oil and gas wars in Colorado — but once again it appears to be an illusion.

The Democrat announced Friday that he struck a far-reaching deal with the industry and environmental organizations to prevent ballot initiatives related to oil and gas in the 2020 or 2022 elections. 

“There are no real winners in these fights, and for most of this election season, it looked like we might see another round of the oil and gas ballot wars in 2020,” Polis wrote in an opinion column. “But today, I’m very proud to report that we have a path before us to make those divisive oil and gas ballot fights a thing of the past.”

The agreement means that the industry-backed Protect Colorado will end its efforts to put two questions on the 2020 ballot — one to prevent restrictions on natural gas usage and another to require economic impact statements for initiatives. 

Three other ballot initiatives — related to oil and gas regarding setbacks from drilling operations, local moratoriums and state regulatory oversight — also won’t make the ballot. But the supporters behind them said the decision reflects the difficulty of collecting the required voter signatures during a pandemic — and not any deal with the governor.

But the prediction from Polis about a longer-lasting detente appears unlikely to hold. A prominent environmental organization and like-minded advocates said they are not part of the governor’s agreement and still plan to consider ballot measures in 2022 to restrict oil and gas drilling in Colorado.

This news first appeared in The Unaffiliated. Subscribe here to get the twice-weekly political newsletter from The Colorado Sun.

“He’s just speaking completely out of turn,” said Anne Lee Foster, an environmental activist who drafted a 2020 ballot measure to increase the buffer between drilling operations and neighborhoods. “We have absolutely not taken the option of a 2022 ballot initiative off the table.”

Likewise, Joe Salazar, the executive director for Colorado Rising, an environmental organization opposed to drilling, said his group is not retreating. “I don’t know what he means by a truce,” Salazar said. “We are keeping everything on the table — we are not saying yes and we are not saying no.”

An oil and gas drilling rig is pictured above houses and a housing development on June 5, 2020 in Weld County. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The most prominent environmental organizations in the state that were part of the agreement with Polis were never considering a 2020 or 2022 ballot measure in the first place. 

A spokesman for Polis did not respond to questions from The Sun about the incongruities in the announcement and instead reiterated the governor’s opposition to ballot measures from either side in 2022, which is the year he faces reelection.

A year ago, Polis signed Senate Bill 181 to overhaul the state’s regulations on oil and gas drilling and suggested “the oil and gas wars that have enveloped our state are over.” But the sentiment proved overly optimistic given the continued legal and ballot fights at the local and state levels.

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In the opinion piece published by Colorado Politics, Polis urged both sides to give the state time to draft and implement the new rules stemming from the legislation. “As we focus on building a clean energy future, SB181 established an oil and gas regulatory framework that fits our state, and we must give it time to work,” he wrote.

If environmental groups push forward with more restrictions on drilling, Protect Colorado, the industry’s leading political committee, pledged to fight them. The group spent $3 million to collect voter signatures on its initiatives before abandoning the effort, campaign finance reports show. 

“We will respond if adverse measures are filed or regulations are advanced that don’t reflect a collaborative process,” Laurie Cipriano, a spokeswoman for Protect Colorado, said in a statement.

Colorado Sun correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.


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