Initiative 97 signature gatherer Kimmy Fry speaks to a person in Civic Center Park while protesters lurk behind her with their signs.

Sam Brasch/CPR News

Published 7.26.2018 | Updated 7.27.2018

Here’s how heated the battle over oil and gas development has become in Colorado: Protesters follow people collecting signatures for a potential ballot measure to limit drilling. They carry banners with counter-messages and urge people not to sign petitions

Some people call it harassment. Others say it’s fair game under the First Amendment.

Anti-fracking coalition Colorado Rising for Health and Safety began gathering signatures for Initiative 97 in April. If it reaches the ballot and wins approval with voters, the buffer between homes and new drilling would increase to 2,500 feet — five times the current limit.

There’s little wonder why the oil and gas industry opposes the measure. A recent study from state regulators found it would make 85 percent of non-federal land in Colorado off-limits to drilling.

The group first raised complaints about protesters dogging its circulators over a month ago. Just recently, Colorado Rising believes it learned how the protesters might be finding them.

Colorado Rising volunteer Anne Lee Foster said an anonymous employee at Anadarko Petroleum shared an internal document. It appears to ask employees to report when they see Initiative 97 canvassers. The letter includes an email address and a text message hotline.

Brian Loma, who helps run the signature campaign for Colorado Rising, showed CPR News what can happen when someone — in this case him — reports the location of a signature gatherer. As he stood nearby Denver’s Civic Center Park, he gave away the gatherer's location.

“So, now we are going to say ‘food trucks by the Capitol,’” he said as he punched away at a text on his phone.

Kimmy Fry, a petite 19-year-old with pixie haircut and a fanny pack with a built-in speaker system, was one of the paid signature gatherers working that day. She said the chosen location was good territory. It had no shortage of people she could approach as they got lunch from food trucks during the annual Civic Center Eats showcase.

The protestors that arrived to trail signature gatherers in Civic Center Park were not bashful about keeping a close proximity to interactions with the public.

Sam Brasch/CPR News

With a goal of 10 signatures in a half hour, Fry was soon approached by a group of young men. They opened their bags and pulled out signs.

“This Petitioner Wants To Ban Fracking In Colorado. So does Vladimir Putin,” read one. Another sign proclaimed “Save CO Jobs.” The four protesters surrounded Fry on all sides. Two others eventually arrived before splitting off to follow other petitioners.

One of the newly arrived protestors gave his name as Cole Rose. He said his interest in oil and gas issues started during debates in high school. Another protester initially gave his name as Tyson but later recanted and said his actual name is Tyler James.

“If fracking is banned from Colorado, the amount of jobs we would lose is so detrimental to our economy,” Rose said. He added that he was not being paid to stop Fry from collecting signatures and was just expressing an opinion.

“We’re not physically not allowing them to do it. We’re just saying our mind. If people really want to do it, they can still sign if they want to.”

Fry pointed out that she had already met some of the same protestors while canvassing. In a more lighthearted moment, the entire group paused together for a break in the shade. Fry asked what they thought of her new sunglasses, which she worried were too large for her face. They approved of the new look.

Still, the protestors stuck close behind Fry for hours. Whenever she approached someone, they shouted “Don’t sign! Don’t sign!”

Signature gatherer Kimmy Fry, center foreground, enjoys a selfie moment in the shade with the protesters that have been shadowing her while she canvases in Civic Center Park.

Sam Brasch/CPR News

Many people enjoying the food trucks ignored the shouting and signed the petition anyway. But the protesters did appear to have deterred Ben Hammond. He declined to sign the drilling setback petition, saying he needed more information.

“I’m curious if I would have signed the fracking thing if they hadn’t been here,” he mused. “In the past, I’ve been quicker to put my signature on ballot initiatives and stuff. So maybe they were effective. I don’t know.”

CPR News reached out to Anadarko to inquire about their connection to the protestors. Instead, Protect Colorado responded. The industry-backed group opposes the setback initiative as a “bad business measure.” Anadarko Petroleum is the largest funder of Protect Colorado — to the tune of almost $2.5 million as of June.

A spokesperson relayed a statement that did not confirm nor deny any relation to the protesters, but said:

“We are exercising our First Amendment rights, which includes asking people to think about and read what they are signing. We have also asked the public and oil and gas employees to let us know when they see individuals gathering signatures on the 2,500-foot setback measure. This is standard practice in modern campaigns. We get asked about the activities in the field and want to understand what is going on. Monitoring opposition is important. The proponents of these bad measures monitor us as well.”

Protect Colorado’s statement said they felt that proponents were not presenting the impacts of anti-oil and gas measures accurately to the public. Their statement concluded that “ensuring people know the facts about the petition they are signing and what it would do to Colorado’s economy is responsible advocacy.”

Rick Reiter, a Democratic political consultant who works on ballot issues, said he’s heard of paid petition protests on statewide issues going back to 2014. He doesn’t think much of the tactic.

“You have to literally hire people to go find people who are hired to collect signatures to create noise around them that scares away potential signers,” he said. “It rarely, if ever, works.”

Yet, even small setbacks could be a big problem for Colorado Rising at this point. They have less than two weeks to collect the rest of their signatures. The group said it hopes the dispute it had with the company it hired to collect signatures, Direct Action Partners, doesn't impact their ability to get on the ballot.

On Thursday, they accused company owner Mike Selvaggio of holding seven boxes of completed petitions hostage in a payment dispute. By midday Friday, the missing petitions were recovered.

Colorado Rising has until Aug. 6 to gather 98,000 valid signatures to qualify for the statewide ballot.