Energy ballot initiatives will be big in the November election

Supporters of the environmental group Colorado Rising carry boxes of signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State for verification. Initiative 97 would make oil and gas development off limits 2,500 feet from homes, gathering places like playgrounds and rivers.(Photo by Grace Hood, Colorado Public Radio)

In two western states, the November election will give voters a chance to vote on oil and fracking and renewable energy. The initiatives in Colorado and Arizona have been contentious already and millions have been spent.


Colorado voters could see two competing oil and gas ballot measures in November.

On one side, environmental group Colorado Rising, seeks to require a 2,500-foot setback between oil wells and any occupied structure, including gathering points like playgrounds and waterways like rivers. These setbacks have been an issue for years, and come as more oil drilling and fracking happens close to cities. (In Culver City, California, for example. PBS SoCal’s David Nazar has reported on the conflict of such exploration in that city in LA County.)

On the other side is the Colorado Farm Bureau, which wants property owners to be compensated if their water, mineral or property is taken or devalued.

Protesting Signature Efforts: Another Front In Oil And Gas Ballot Battle

“The only thing that would be affected by this are the most egregious acts of government,” said Colorado Farm Bureau Executive Director Chad Vorthmann. “Where they specifically targeted one individual one producer or one type of industry and said we’re going to take your property. Or we’re going to devalue it.”

The Colorado Farm Bureau has already delivered 209,000 signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State, which it said is a new record. Protect Colorado, which is funded heavily by oil and gas interests, pumped millions into the signature gathering effort.

The Farm Bureau was required to gather signatures from all 34 Colorado state senate districts for its constitutional amendment. The Secretary of State’s office has until September 5 to verify the signatures.

Meanwhile, Colorado Rising turned in more than 170,000 signatures on deadline day, Aug. 6, and is taking a different tack. It’s attempting to get a statutory amendment passed by voters.

“There are so many reasons we need to protect the health and safety of Coloradans,” said Suzanne Spiegel with Colorado Rising. “Right now the state isn’t doing that. People are getting sick, there are explosions that are killing people, our water is being contaminated. And it’s on us to step up and protect our communities protect our neighborhoods.”

This will be the second time that setback proponents have sought to put a measure in front of voters. A third attempt in 2014 resulted in a brokered compromise between Democratic Rep. Jared Polis and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.

The compromise created an oil and gas task force which made several recommendations regarding the location of large oil and gas facilities, and gave local governments more say in how oil and gas is developed. Some suggestions were adopted by state regulators.

According to a state of Colorado analysis, nearly 55 percent of land across the state would be unavailable for oil and gas development if voters approve Initiative 97.

According to a state analysis of Initiative 97, nearly 55 percent of land across the state would be unavailable for oil and gas development if voters approve it.

In Weld County, where the majority of oil and gas is developed, nearly 80 percent of land would be off limits.

Ultimately, former Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission head Dave Neslin said lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in damages could be in play..

“I think it will give rise to takings claims against the state on the part of the mineral owners in Colorado,” said Neslin, an attorney with Davis, Graham & Stubbs. “I think it would be a billion dollar mistake.”


In Arizona, Cronkite News and KJZZ have reported on a very heated initiative campaign that would change the state constitution to set new goals for renewable energy use. One proposal, sponsored by Clean Energy for Healthy Arizona would require that 50 percent of Arizona’s electrical energy must come from renewable sources, mostly solar and wind, by 2030.

Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona is primarily funded by California billionaire Tom Steyer, who has become a target in the campaign. A political action committee, Reliable Energy Policy, has targeted Steyer.

Steyer has been mentioned as a possible 2020 presidential candidate and recently told CSPAN that he has not ruled it out. He is the third biggest donor nationally in the 2018 campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Arizona Public Service Electric Company (APS) opposes the renewable energy referendum and argues that the passage of the proposal could lead to the shut down of the Palo Verde Nuclear plant, the largest power producer in the country. It serves 4 million people across the Southwest.

The widespread availability of wind and solar power could impact the market for nuclear power, argue opponents of the referendum.

They say that nuclear power would be hit hardest among sources of power in Arizona, because Palo Verde – the nation’s largest power producer – could not operate at levels low enough to satisfy the initiative’s requirements.

Rodd McLeod, a spokesman for the Clean Energy Initiative, took issue with APS’ assertion that the requirements of the initiative would force them to close the plant. He was skeptical of the argument that Palo Verde would no longer be economically viable, since utilities from other states own part of the plant.

Arizona is already one of the top producers of renewable energy.

Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona has turned in nearly half a million signatures, but opponents of the ballot measure have filed a lawsuit, claiming that more than 200,000 of the signatures are invalid because they belong to people who are not registered to vote in Arizona, while others lack key information like first and last names.

Cronkite News’ Jéssica Alvarado Gámez and KJZZ’s Will Stone contributed reporting for this article.