Energy & Environment

Colorado’s Anti-Fracking Law Illustrates the State’s Growing Divide

ProPetro CEO Dale Redman speaks with workers on a yard where he stores and manages equipment for his fracking services company in Midland, Texas, April 12, 2018. (Ann Saphir/Reuters)
It is turning blue and taking aim at a major industry.

Colorado’s environmentalist lobby won a decades-long battle earlier this year, passing severe restrictions on fracking in the state. The bill in question, dubbed SB19-181, was passed by the Colorado legislature in early April and signed into law by Governor Jared Polis later that month.

SB19-181 was an open dismissal of the will of Colorado voters, who overwhelmingly voted to reject a similar regulatory measure in a 2018 ballot initiative. The earlier attempt, Proposition 112, was pitched as a public-safety measure by environmentalist groups. It was resoundingly defeated at the ballot box, with 57 percent of the electorate voting against it.

Governor Polis and former governor John Hickenlooper — both Democrats — also opposed Proposition 112. “In spite of the challenges we face, Colorado’s economy remains today the envy of the nation,” said Polis, then still a gubernatorial candidate in a close race against Republican Walker Stapleton. “And if we want to keep it that way, we can’t ignore the role that the oil and gas industry has played in our growth, or the significant wages and tax revenue it creates in our state.”

Hickenlooper, the outgoing governor at the time (and current long-shot presidential candidate), was more explicit. “This is a big part of the state’s economy,” he said during debate over the 2018 bill. “You’re talking 15 percent, some people say as much as 20 percent, of the state’s economy. And suddenly it goes to half? That is how you spell recession.”

Indeed, oil and gas is a major part of Colorado’s economy, and the state’s recent fracking boom has been a significant contributor to its continued prosperity. Colorado’s oil and gas sector generates more than $31 billion and employs over 232,000 residents. Oil and gas jobs pay exceptionally well, too: According to federal data, the average job in the industry pays $117,000 a year, which is approximately double the average in the state as a whole. Many Coloradoans who lack the luxury of a college degree say that the high-paying industry jobs allowed them to buy a house and raise a family in Colorado. Without a prosperous energy sector, they worry, they would be unable to remain in the increasingly expensive state.

The industry’s major presence in Colorado probably explains the referendum’s decisive defeat in 2018. However, environmentalist groups were undeterred. Continued lobbying efforts by fracktivists resulted in the state legislature’s passage of SB19-181, with votes largely split along party lines. This time, the bill garnered the support of Governor Polis, who had previously been regarded with some suspicion by environmentalists for his more moderate record on energy regulation.

There is concern that SB19-181 is even more extreme than the defeated Proposition 112. Proposition 112 severely restricted fracking by banning its placement near residential housing — where much of the oil-rich shale lies — but SB19-181 essentially permits open-ended and unlimited regulation, allowing local districts to regulate oil and gas with impunity, in defiance of the traditionally more industry-friendly state legislature. Many of the densely populated districts where fracking is most fruitful are heavily Democratic. As their new regulations take effect, Colorado could lose up to 185,000 jobs, over $13.5 billion in state and local revenue, and more than $256 billion in lost GDP by 2030, according to one study.

This economic havoc — wreaked upon rural communities by urban politicians — is indicative of a larger statewide sociopolitical trend. Colorado has been something of a purple state for some years now; like many areas of the country, its politics are more or less divided between the state’s urban and rural districts. The state has four Democrats and three Republicans in the House of Representatives, and both a Republican and a Democrat in the Senate. However, with an explosion of growth in cities such as Denver and Boulder, the state is increasingly taking on bluer hue, demonstrated by the state GOP’s debilitating losses in the 2018 election, which included five-term Republican U.S. Representative Mike Coffman losing his incumbency to an upstart Democrat from Denver.

In the fracking debate, beleaguered state Republicans, often representing more rural, working-class areas of the state, are bitterly fighting a losing battle to preserve the industry and the way of life it provides for large swathes of their constituencies. The environmental-activist lobby is a powerful force in Colorado state politics, and it is beginning to assert itself as the state’s politics become more decidedly left-leaning. For many of those who derive their livelihoods from the oil and gas industry, this means an increasingly uncertain future.

Editor’s Note: This article initially claimed that Republicans held a majority in the Colorado state senate. In fact, Democrats hold  a majority. The article has been corrected.

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