Voters in three Colorado towns voted to place moratoriums on natural gas and oil exploration and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) Tuesday, and a moratorium on the ballot in a fourth town failed by just a few votes. The ballot initiatives were seen as largely symbolic efforts, since there is little to no drilling being done in any of the towns. Meanwhile, across the country in Ohio, a ban on fracking on Youngstown’s ballot failed for a second time.
In Boulder, ballot question 2H, which places a five-year moratorium on natural gas and oil exploration, passed by a wide margin, with 76.8% of ballots cast to approve the measure. Voters in Lafayette approved ballot question No. 300, which bans new natural gas and oil wells with no end date, by a 57.8% to 42.1% margin. In Fort Collins, ballot issue 2A, which imposes a five-year moratorium on fracking and waste products from natural gas and oil drilling, was approved by a 55.3% to 44.6% margin.
Broomfield, CO, reported that an initiative that would have imposed a five-year ban on fracking had missed passage by 13 votes out of a total of 20,519 votes cast on election night.
"The close election in Broomfield proves that common sense prevails in mainstream Colorado communities when it comes to energy production," said Tisha Schuller, CEO of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association (COGA). Results in Boulder and Lafayette "were nothing more than symbolic votes," since there has been no drilling activity there since the 1990s, Schuller said.
"Coloradans overwhelmingly support ongoing oil and gas development. We will continue mobilizing and educating our neighbors on the safety and importance of our industry. We will continue to stand with the communities that support over 100,000 Colorado families who rely on the oil and gas industry for their livelihood," Schuller said.
While Wells Fargo analysts in a note Wednesday also called the moratorium votes "largely symbolic," they warned that they could represent "a disconcerting trend...and we may see further local voter activism against fracking over the coming year and into next November. It's unclear now the legality of these measures, but we do expect a lot of friction from both the state and operators."
COGA had poured more than $500,000 into an advertising and public relations campaign, while backers of the ballot measures reportedly received widespread financial and organizing support from out-of-state anti-fracking forces. Activist groups that backed the moratorium initiatives included Food & Water Watch, Clean Water Action, Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, Wild Earth Guardian, and 350.org.
"Coloradans have sent a strong, simple message in this election: they do not want fracking in their communities," said Sam Schabacker, Mountain West Region director for Food & Water Watch. "It's something that Gov. Hickenlooper should especially take notice of as we head towards 2014, and that all of our state and federal representatives should pay attention to."
Symbolic or not, activist groups are likely to be encouraged by the outcome of the anti-fracking ballot initiatives, according to Paul Enockson, a lawyer with BakerHostetler in Denver and a member of the firm's national Shale Practice Team.
"With the passage of these bans, anti-fracking groups backing these types of moratoria and bans will likely seek out additional cities to target for fracking bans, with the possibility of a state-wide ban finding its way onto the 2014 Colorado ballot," Enockson said in his blog Wednesday. "Despite the prolific oil and gas operations in the State of Colorado, Colorado continues to be ground zero in the battle over fracking."
A ban on the use of fracking by oil and natural gas drillers that was approved last year by voters in Longmont, CO, has been challenged in court by COGA and Colorado's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Earlier this year, Gov. John Hickenlooper vowed to take legal action against cities and counties in the state that enact fracking bans. At the time, Hickenlooper said the bottom line for the state was that "someone paid money to buy mineral rights...and you can't harvest mineral rights without doing hydraulic fracturing, which I think we've domonstrated again and again can be done safely."
The wind was blowing a different direction in Ohio on Tuesday where, for the second time in six months, voters in Youngstown rejected, by about a 55-45% margin, an amendment to the city's charter that would have banned fracking and other activities that support shale development.
The amendment in Youngstown called for a ban on fracking within the city limits, but it would have also prohibited depositing, storing and transporting wastewater from shale operations; building infrastructure that supported shale development, including compressor stations, pipelines and processing, storage and transportation facilities; and water extraction from the surface or subsurface to support shale development.
According to unofficial results from the Mahoning County Board of Elections, 5,764 votes (54.86%) were cast in Youngstown against the amendment, while 4,742 votes (45.14%) were made in favor. A similar measure, which was also dubbed the "Youngstown Community Bill of Rights," was defeated by a 57-43% margin in May.
"It was a decisive decision, and we hope that it sends a message to the anti-movement," spokesman Mike Chadsey of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association told NGI on Wednesday. The anti-fracking supporters "have no credibility in town. They're a small minority that's just loud in protest."
In 2012 the Youngstown City Council voted 5-2 in favor of an ordinance to open city-owned land to oil and natural gas drilling.