An oil industry-backed measure just qualified for the November ballot. It could be the first of many

A pump jack at work in 2016, near Firestone, Colo.

A political group financed by Colorado’s largest oil and gas companies has successfully submitted enough signatures to earn a spot on the November ballot for a measure backers say would boost economic transparency.

If approved, Proposed Initiative 77 would require all future ballot measures to appear below an extensive economic impact statement, which must include the estimated effect on jobs, state and local tax revenue and the overall state gross domestic product. The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office on Monday announced the backers had collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

The development marks the latest example of the fossil fuel industry turning to Colorado’s ballot process to advance its policy goals. Campaign finance records show the main group backing the measure, Protect Colorado, is leading an issue committee funded with millions from Chevron Energy, Occidental Petroleum Company and other smaller oil and gas companies operating in Colorado.

Mark Truax, the president and CEO of Pac/West Strategies, is the main political consultant coordinating the group's ballot strategy. He confirmed to CPR News that Protect Colorado had submitted the necessary signatures to certify the economic transparency proposal but declined to explain why the industry is backing the legislation.

The potential initiative, however, could pack future ballot measures with statistics the oil and gas industry often wields in fights against environmental groups and climate-minded lawmakers. If approved, the measure would require the legislature’s chief economists to review potential economic impact statements submitted by “any interested party.” Within five days, the economist must write a summary with a range of all the qualifying statements. 

That language would appear above future ballot measures unless another group mounts a successful court challenge. 

Other fossil fuel trade groups have hinted at their support. Gabby Richmond, a spokesperson for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said her organization’s board hasn’t taken an official position on the plan, but she added giving voters economic transparency on ballot measures is “a responsible approach to governing.” 

Meanwhile, critics fear the plan could result in long, confusing ballots packed with information designed to scare voters away from progressive policies. Scott Wasserman, the president of the Bell Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank and advocacy group focused on economic mobility issues, also warned it would overwhelm state officials tasked with preparing the ballot. 

“The entire process will lead to a lot of confusion, a lot of abuse and put an unfair demand on the people who make our state work,” Wasserman said.

Jessica Goad, the assistant director of Conservation Colorado, agreed the measure could allow outside groups to mislead voters with “vague” economic impact statements, which she said would likely ignore any economic benefits gained by protecting the environment and public health.

“This measure takes none of that into account and instead is biased toward corporate interests seeking to protect their profits,” Goad said. 

The economic transparency initiative could be the first shot in a barrage of ballot measures from the oil and gas industry. Protect Colorado is currently collecting signatures for another initiative to ban state and local governments from restricting “energy choice,” which could block policies to cut climate-warming emissions by limiting natural gas access in new buildings. 

The same lawyers backing initiatives on the group’s behalf have also filed a range of other energy and environment measures. One would restrict the state from approving further regulations to cut smog-forming pollutants from oil and gas operations. Another would require an even number of Republicans, Democrats and Independents on the state air quality commission. A third would require a statewide vote on any legislative measure estimated to cut the state’s overall gross domestic product by $100 million over five years. 

A coalition of environmental groups has responded with their own package of ballot initiatives, which could result in the industry facing expensive lawsuits in the wake of spills or air pollution incidents. 

It’s possible a truce could prevent all of the measures from reaching votes. In past ballot cycles, the oil and gas industry and environmental groups have threatened to run competing ballot initiatives before negotiating an agreement to back down and save their political and financial capital for a later election year. Colorado allows supporters to remove a ballot measure until 60 days prior to an election. 

One complicating factor is a package of air quality bills currently working their way through the state Capitol, which has met a well-financed opposition campaign from the oil and gas industry. The trove of potential 2024 ballot proposals might be an attempt to force lawmakers to back off those plans in order to avoid an expensive fight ahead of the November election.