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Colorado Oil And Gas Measure Could Have Regional Impact

A drilling rig operating near Erie, Colorado.
Dan Boyce
Mountain West New Bureau
A drilling rig operating near Erie, Colorado.

Oil and gas producing states around the country are closely watching Colorado this election season. Voters are deciding on a ballot measure dramatically increasing the so-called “set-back” distance drilling rigs need to be from homes.

Proposition 112 increases the standard distance between new oil wells and occupied buildings from 500 feet to 2500 feet. The proposal could significantly hamper the industry in Colorado—and the results could eventually be felt far beyond the state’s borders. 

“It’s an existential threat to the industry in Colorado,” said Kathleen Sgamma, President of the pro-oil and gas Western Energy Alliance.The main oil and gas group fighting the setback measure calls itself Protect Colorado. They have spent a record amount on advertising this election year -- about $38 million dollars.

The parts of Colorado with the most oil and gas coincidentally happen to have some of the fastest-growing populations—with new homes filling what used to be open farmland.

Prop 112 supporters point to a rash of high profile oil and gas accidents the past couple of years, including a home explosion in the Denver suburb of Firestone that killed two men. There are also some studies that show living close to oil and gas wells leading to higher rates of some diseases like cancer. Yet, Sgamma thinks this is about more than that.

“This is about just shutting it all down,” she said. “This is about keeping it in the ground.”

Supporters deny this, but the state’s oil and gas conservation commission does says the measure would effectively prohibit development on the vast majority of Colorado land.

Sgamma believes it wouldn’t stop there.

“If this could pass in Colorado, one of the major oil and natural gas producing states in the country, then environmental groups are going to try it elsewhere,” she said.

Jeremy Nichols is an environmentalist and he essentially agrees with Sgamma.

“I think you’re going to see a flurry of inspiration,” he said.

Nichols is the Climate and Energy Program Director for Wild Earth Guardians.

“It’s not to say they’re going to ban fracking in Wyoming tomorrow. But, what I think we will see is that Colorado will be a very critical building block toward empowering people to really put their health, their safety, their welfare first,” he said.

It is important to note, however, that this issue of greater setbacks from buildings wouldn’t have nearly the effect in other western states, where oil and gas producing areas are still very rural.

Sgamma has another concern. She worries it wouldn’t only be environmentalists moving their ideas out of state. With most of Colorado’s land area off-limits, she said oil and gas companies will also move elsewhere, taking their high-paying jobs and their tax revenue with them.

“I could see an opportunity for the capital that would be spent in Colorado to come into Wyoming, but doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gonna happen,” said John Robitaille, Vice President of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.

He said a lot of the oil and gas companies in Colorado already operate in Wyoming, so moving infrastructure up North might make sense. Still, there are so many other factors companies use to make these decisions.

“There are numerous other areas in the world where they could go and be just fine,” he said.

Ultimately, Robitaille couldn’t say whether he thought Proposition 112 might actually be good for Wyoming.

An October poll from the University of Colorado shows 112 narrowly passing, despite the much greater spending from the oil and gas industry.

Find reporter Dan Boyce on Twitter @BoyceDan .

Copyright 2018 Boise State Public Radio

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.
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