Fossil fuel advocates revive ballot measure to prohibit local gas bans in Colorado

Hart Van Denbuirg/CPR News
A natural gas installation in Weld County, November 2019.

A leading fossil fuel advocacy group has once again proposed a ballot initiative to stop Colorado communities from banning natural gas hookups in new buildings. 

The push is being led by Protect Colorado, an advocacy group campaign finance records show is funded by some of the state's largest oil and gas producers, including Chevron, Occidental Petroleum and PDC Energy. Lawyers working on the group's behalf submitted draft language for the potential 2024 ballot measure to state officials on Aug. 25. 

If approved by voters, the proposal would restrict local governments from limiting the type of energy residents could use for heating or cooking. It comes as climate-minded communities like Berkeley, Calif. and Crested Butte have prohibited new natural gas hookups to wean buildings off of fossil fuels. 

"Banning natural gas hookups for kitchen stoves, furnaces, and water heaters is part of a national movement to ban the oil and natural gas industry under the guise of fighting climate change," said Laurie Cipriano, a Protect Colorado spokesperson.

Other Republican-led states have approved similar laws to stop local communities from restricting natural gas access in new buildings. In Colorado, those efforts have failed to gain traction in a state capitol dominated by Democrats.

In addition, Protect Colorado is working on a second initiative that would require all future ballot questions to detail the total cost of the proposed policy, Cipriano said. Both proposals would appear before voters next year.

It’s unclear if the group plans to follow through on either ballot push. Protect Colorado proposed similar initiatives for the 2020 and 2022 ballots but pulled back after environmental groups chose not to pursue initiatives to limit oil and gas drilling along the Front Range. 

Ahead of the 2024 election cycle, a coalition of environmental groups called Safe and Healthy Colorado has submitted ballot language for a plan to phase out new permits involving hydraulic fracturing by 2030. Cipriano declined to say whether the group’s ballot measure proposals are a tactic to scare advocates away from the plan by filing competing initiatives.

Micah Parkin, the executive director of the environmental group 350 Colorado and one of the advocates leading the latest ballot push, said her coalition won't be deterred by any moves from the oil and gas industry. 

"We just have to act independently of what they do. Otherwise, we're just letting them hold us hostage," Parkin said. 

If the effort moves ahead, voters could see another bruising battle over the oil and gas industry during a presidential election year. The latest brawl played out in 2018 over a plan to push drilling operations farther from homes and waterways. Industry groups spent more than $40 million to oppose the initiative before voters rejected it by more than 10 points.

But it's still unclear if the environmental coalition can reach the 2024 ballot. Parkin says the state Supreme Court is now reviewing the specific language following legal challenges from the oil and gas industry.

If the initiative wins final approval from the court and the state title board, supporters would then need to collect 124,238 valid signatures from Colorado voters.

Parkin says her coalition is now raising money to finance an operation to gather the necessary signatures.