Last week’s elections proved to be a crucial turning point for Colorado in the fight for climate change abatement. In elections across the state, voters turned out to turn down fracking and promote municipalization, creating what will hopefully prove to be a model for other communities. Perhaps most impressive is the David-and-Goliath scope of these political battles, where a small but passionate group of individuals was able to stop a barrage of negative campaigning from oil & gas companies in order to secure a positive win.
Despite plummeting natural gas prices and a reduction in overall carbon emissions as a result of shale gas adoption, communities across the country are questioning the safety of natural gas extraction, or fracking. And with good reason: while fracking may reduce carbon emissions, the overall contribution of natural gas extraction to climate change is still considerable as a result of the methane produced. While there is still debate about just how bad those impacts might be, even conservative estimates predict that fracking releases more than five billion pounds of methane each year. As one of the class of greenhouse gases, methane is estimated to have an impact on the climate 25 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.
Studies of the human health impacts of fracking also demonstrate that there is a significant human cost to shale drilling. Reported side effects include rashes, sores, headaches, and diarrhea. Cancer risk is known to increase as a result of fracking, and it potentially also causes birth defects in humans and animals who are exposed to toxicity.
To learn more about the dangers of fracking, we recommend viewing this infographic.
Last Tuesday, three municipalities in the Colorado Front Range—Boulder, Lafayette, and Ft. Collins—voted to extend or embark on fracking bans within their city limits. In Lafayette, the measure will be a permanent one. In Broomfield, a slightly more conservative city, the measure failed by a margin of only 194 votes. What is most significant in these battles, though, is not necessarily how the results turned out; the Colorado Front Range is a historically liberal community. The real news is how soundly the pro-fracking Colorado Oil and Gas Association was beaten financially: the organization spent more than $878,000 on city-specific campaigning, whereas their proponents spent a mere $26,000. Activists against fracking were able to gain significantly greater sympathy via grassroots organizing and social media than negative campaign messages.
The story gets even better when you consider Boulder’s municipalization project. In 2011, voters narrowly approved an initiative for the city to pursue its own electricity generation if specific feasibility criteria could be met. The move to a city-based power system that intends to pursue the use of renewable energy as a core business practice would mean the loss of considerable revenue for utility Excel Energy. Not to be defeated, Excel co-sponsored a debt limit initiative on the 2013 ballot that would have essentially hamstrung the new, local power organization before it ever got off the ground.
The measure, 310, was soundly defeated on Tuesday, by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. Excel contributed $300,000 to the organizing effort and used campaign tactics including a barrage of emails to all Boulder customers with municipalization myths portrayed as facts.
While the pro-city utility groups managed to raise almost $250,000 to defeat the Excel-supported initiative, much of that money came from crowdsourcing efforts by the grassroots organization New Era Colorado whose video about Excel’s anti-municipalization campaign went viral, getting nearly 1 million views on You Tube.
The victories of these citizen-organized efforts—and the role that social and new media played—are a useful reminder that even in the face of big oil and gas interests, sanity and the goal of a safe and sustainable future can prevail.