A movement is under way to put a ballot measure before Colorado voters in November that would give local governments across the state the power to protect the health and safety of residents by banning or restricting oil and gas drilling and other industrial activities now permitted by state law.
The effort, which would be an amendment to the state constitution known as the “Right to Local Self-Government Act,” is being pushed by the nascent Colorado Community Rights Network.
Community activist and Lafayette resident Cliff Willmeng said the group is planning to turn in final language for a ballot measure to the state in the next week or so.
That would be followed by a statewide signature collection campaign — 86,105 valid signatures would need to be presented to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office — to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
If it passes, the act would be the first effort of its type in the country to be enacted on a statewide level, said Willmeng, who successfully led the charge in Lafayette to ban any new oil and gas drilling there.
“The measure would address any type of corporate project that a local community would deem to be a threat,” he said. “That could include hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), but would not be limited to it.”
‘Radical’ measure would harm state
Other activities over which residents should be able to exercise control might include the planting of genetically modified crops, cyanide use in gold mining and the construction of dams, he said.
Willmeng said the intent of the proposed act would be to ensure that state law and corporate interests don’t trump local law when it comes to making decisions about what’s best for the health and wellbeing of a community.
He expects that there will be strong legal challenges to the measure, which would give local communities the power to eliminate the “rights, powers and duties of for-profit business entities” if they usurp or conflict with the “fundamental rights of people, their communities and the natural environment.”
“The Colorado Oil and Gas Association cannot allow this to be popularly decided upon and will never defer to a ballot measure on their industry,” Willmeng said.
Doug Flanders, director of policy and external affairs for the association, said he hadn’t seen the full language of the proposed measure but said it appeared to be more of the same from those opposed to energy extraction at any cost.
“These radical measures will have implications beyond oil and gas development and energize Coloradans who support responsible and affordable energy development against such actions,” he said. “We anticipate community and civic leaders will continue to communicate with citizens about the loss of economic vitality, tax revenues, and the other negative impacts that communities will face if industries are banned in Colorado.”
Bans have invited lawsuits
The idea for a statewide ballot measure, Willmeng said, stems from the burgeoning movement by communities along the Front Range — including Boulder, Lafayette, Longmont and Fort Collins — to place restrictions on fracking within their borders. Proponents of the bans argue that allowing such industrial activity so close to where people live poses a health hazard.
A five-year fracking ban narrowly passed by voters in Broomfield in November is being challenged in court and awaits a ruling from a judge.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Association responded quickly to the local bans at the end of 2013 by suing Lafayette and Fort Collins, challenging their authority under home rule powers to put in place restrictions on activities that are under the auspices of state control. The association sued Longmont for a similar measure passed by voters there in 2012.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency that both regulates and promotes the industry in Colorado, also sued Longmont for overstepping its regulatory authority. No rulings have yet been issued in either case.
Proponents of keeping oil and gas regulation a matter of state concern often point to the landmark 1992 case of Voss v. Lundvall Bros., in which the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Greeley’s land use ordinances did not permit the city to halt the drilling of gas, oil or hydrocarbon wells within its borders.
The court held that in instances where municipal and state law conflicts, state law supersedes local ordinances.
State pre-emption challenged
Willmeng said that flies in the face of what democracy is all about. When it comes to decisions about health and welfare, he said, the legal supremacy of municipalities should override state pre-emption.
“The essence of this state initiative is to address the problem that says that municipalities are essentially colonies of the state,” he said. “When it comes to democracy, we don’t feel that voice should have finite limitations as it pertains to corporate projects.”
Ben Price, national director of organizing for the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, said giving preference to corporate interests over those of individuals is an outmoded way of thinking and needs to change.
His organization helped the Colorado Community Rights Network draft the language in the proposed ballot measure and is helping other like-minded organizations around the country do the same.
“The simple logic is that people would not empower their representatives to give charters and licenses to entities so they can violate the rights of the people in whose names they are chartered,” he said. “This measure is pro-rights. Surely, businesses can conduct their activities as long as they don’t violate those rights.”
Willmeng said the Colorado Community Rights Network formed last fall and has about 50 members so far, though he expects that number to grow rapidly as the campaign picks up steam.
Richard Coolidge, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office, said ballot measure proponents have six months to collect signatures from the time the ballot title is set, with a deadline of Aug. 1 to turn in all signatures.