Campaign to protect natural gas at the Colorado ballot box gains momentum and money

· Jan. 4, 2024, 4:07 pm
blue flame on a gas stoveblue flame on a gas stoveHart Van Denburg/CPR News
The blue flame on a gas stove.

After years of threatening to reignite Colorado’s oil and gas ballot wars, the state’s fossil fuel industry appears more serious than ever about mounting a campaign to ask voters to protect gas stoves and furnaces this November.

The ballot push is led by Protect Colorado, an advocacy group funded by the state's largest oil and gas operators. The organization proposed an initiative in August 2023 to block laws that restrict the type of energy residents use for heating and cooking, whether that’s solar from a rooftop or natural gas from a pipeline. 

While supporters have framed the measure as a referendum to preserve household energy choices, backers also acknowledge it has a more specific objective: slowing the movement to remove fossil fuel appliances from new buildings.

Across the country, climate-minded communities from New York City to Crested Butte have approved local building codes and laws to require all-electric buildings — without natural gas hookups — in order to protect indoor air quality and take full advantage of growing supplies of zero-carbon energy sources like wind and solar.  

While the oil and gas industry filed similar initiatives in 2020 and 2022, it withdrew them after environmental groups dropped their own ballot measures to restrict oil and gas drilling. It now appears supporters have enough money to fund a serious effort to gather signatures and put the oil and gas industry’s latest proposed initiative on the 2024 ballot. 

Campaign finance records show Protect Colorado collected $3.4 million last November, receiving $1.5 million in donations from both Chevron and Occidental Petroleum. In the same month, the group paid $2.25 million to Pac/West Strategies to collect signatures, hiring a consulting firm that tends to support agriculture and energy interests.

Mark Truax, the firm’s CEO and president, confirmed petitioners are actively canvassing the state. Protect Colorado must submit 124,238 valid signatures by Aug. 4 to qualify for the ballot, but Truax wouldn’t say how many they’ve collected so far.

Why climate groups oppose the measure

If it makes it on the ballot and is approved by voters, environmental advocates fear the proposed initiative could have ramifications beyond unraveling recent electrification standards.

Due to the proposed ballot language’s broad prohibition on any rule “discriminating” against an energy source, opponents fear it could have ripple effects that override a far larger set of consumer protections and climate programs.

“It's quite a reckless and extremely broadly written measure, and we think it's going to lead to the invalidation of numerous climate policies and almost every state and local health rule concerning oil and natural gas,” said Jessica Goad, the deputy director for Conservation Colorado.

In Colorado, Louisville and Crested Butte have banned natural gas hookups in newly constructed homes, while larger cities like Denver and Boulder have approved standards calling for a more gradual transition. The state itself passed a minimum set of building standards to nudge local governments in the same direction.

Christine Brinker, a senior policy manager for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said the proposed legislation could invalidate those efforts, along with standard regulations on everything from natural gas power plants to solar panel credits to electrical wiring.

“In the bigger picture, it would take away our choice to have clean air and a stable, livable climate,” said Brinker.

Colorado Republicans have attempted to limit gas bans through the state legislature but failed after meeting stiff resistance from Democrats, who have a firm grip on both chambers of the assembly and the governor’s office.

That hasn’t been the case in states with greater levels of Republican control. An analysis published by S&P Global in June 2023 found at least 24 states have passed laws that prohibit local governments from restricting gas use in buildings.

A fragile truce on oil and gas ballot issues

While the oil and gas industry appears invested in the initiative, the effort could still prove to be a strategy designed to scare environmental groups away from their own potential ballot campaigns.

Safe and Healthy Colorado, a coalition of environmental groups, has submitted ballot language for its own measure to restrict new oil and gas development. If approved, the initiative would phase out new permits for hydraulic fracturing by 2030.

The group is currently waiting for approval from the state title board to begin collecting signatures. In the meantime, campaign finance records show it raised $54,000 to support the effort, which it has mainly spent paying lawyers to help move the initiative toward the November ballot.

Micah Parkin, a leading supporter and the executive director of the climate group 350 Colorado, said her coalition is moving forward and has no interest in negotiating with the oil and gas industry. 

“We don't have any intention of making any decisions about our initiative related to what the industry does with theirs,” Parkin said. 

If either initiative appears before voters, the state could see the fiercest ballot war over the oil and gas industry since 2018, when environmental groups ran an initiative to ban fracking near sensitive areas like schools and waterways. 

The oil and gas industry ended up spending more than $41 million to defeat the measure. Afterward, statehouse Democrats approved legislation to overhaul Colorado’s oil and gas rules, giving more oversight to local governments and explicitly directing state regulators to consider health and safety when approving new permits. 

Upon signing the legislation, Gov. Jared Polis declared an end to the “oil and gas wars” that had enveloped the state. He later pledged to oppose any measures related to the oil and gas industry through his first term — which ended in 2022 — to allow time for the new regulations to take effect. 

A spokesperson for the governor’s office didn’t immediately say if Polis plans to oppose the latest set of oil and gas ballot measures. 

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