Anti-fracking ballot measures are collapsing, so what happens next?

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Colorado’s anti-fracking campaign is a bust – again. But make no mistake: The campaign goes on.

According to CBS Denver, environmental activists have nowhere near the number of valid signatures needed to put two anti-fracking measures on the November ballot. This is a huge embarrassment for the national environmental groups behind the anti-fracking push – including 350.org, Food & Water Watch, Sierra Club and Greenpeace. On the day the petitions were due, the activists insisted they would clear the threshold of 98,492 valid signatures. They even contrived a dramatic media stunt, delivering dozens and dozens of boxes to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office just minutes before the final deadline.

But the boxes were just for show. Most were half-full, and when state officials consolidated the petitions for shipping, roughly 50 empty boxes were left over. And there was another problem: While other campaigns provided detailed estimates of how many signatures they collected – ranging between 150,000 and 200,000 – the anti-fracking activists refused. They would only say that “well over 100,000 signatures” were submitted for each anti-fracking measure.

icon_op_edBut CBS political specialist Shaun Boyd tracked down a series of reports from the activists who circulated the anti-fracking petitions. Those documents show a total of roughly 105,000 signatures for each measure. On average, roughly 30 percent of signatures are invalidated during the Secretary of State’s review process, which would put the activists well short of the number needed to make the ballot.

“I think they’re doomed,” former Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler (R) told CBS.

As for the activists, they had no comment for CBS. But clearly, they must have known they had failed to gather enough signatures when they paraded all those boxes in front of the cameras. The whole point of the stunt, therefore, was pinning the blame on Colorado election officials for failing to make the ballot. “We made it over the hurdle of having the signatures needed to turn into the Secretary of State and now it’s in their hands to go through the validation process,” a Food & Water Watch official told Reuters.

The activists can try to blame others for their failures if they want, but only a small number of true-believers are going to buy this bogus argument. In fact, according to Politico, some environmental activists in Colorado have been secretly hoping the measures will not make the ballot. Why is that? Because big environmental groups and big environmental donors have big plans for Colorado elections this year. If anti-fracking initiatives are “crushed at the ballot box,” as one environmental activist told Politico, the fallout would threaten many other election contests that green groups are determined to win.

The truth is, even without anti-fracking measures on the ballot, environmental politics will continue to play a huge role in Colorado elections this year. But instead of having the debate in the open, green groups and their financial backers are keeping a much lower profile, so voters don’t see what’s coming until after November.

Take Tom Steyer, the California billionaire and environmental activist. Steyer is huge donor to environmental groups, including 350.org, one of the national organizations behind the ballot-measure campaign to drive oil and natural gas development out of Colorado. But Steyer and 350.org are engaged in several other campaigns too.

They support the “keep it in the ground” effort, a broad coalition of environmental activist groups seeking to ban the production of fossil fuels – oil, natural gas and coal – in Colorado and other states. They are also behind the fossil fuel divestment campaign, which is lobbying the University of Denver to dump investments with any connection to oil, gas or coal, while at the same time trying to flip control of the University of Colorado Board of Regents from Republicans to Democrats.

Steyer and 350.org also support a campaign to silence critics of the environmental left using the law enforcement powers of state attorneys general and even the U.S. Department of Justice. The campaign, condemned on the left and the right as an attack on free speech, has targeted dozens of conservative organizations and think tanks, including the Mountain States Legal Foundation in Lakewood.

These campaigns all have the same goal: Crippling the oil, natural gas and coal industries with new laws and regulations, both here in Colorado and across the rest of the country, and forcing the public to use more expensive and less reliable energy sources like wind and solar. But as Colorado business leaders have warned, this would cripple our economy too. We are the seventh largest energy producing state, not to mention the fact that oil, natural gas and coal provide more than 80 percent of the energy needed to power the American economy.

But new laws and regulations don’t write themselves. You need the right people in the right places, which is why Steyer and his allies in the environmental community are getting deeply involved in election battles all over the Colorado ballot this year.

Steyer has now spent more than $900,000 on research and polling services in Colorado this election cycle. This is an “extraordinary” amount, according to political analyst Floyd Ciruli, and almost double the size of the polling operation Steyer ran in Colorado before the 2014 election. In that election, roughly $500,000 of polling was used to support an $8.5 million campaign in support of former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D). The dramatic increase in polling this year suggests a much bigger campaign from the California billionaire in 2016, one that achieves “vertical control of the ballot, taking over the state for his environmental agenda,” Ciruli says.

Steyer has also left some strong clues about where all that outside money will be spent. The California billionaire has made a series of small personal contributions to five Democrats running for the state legislature:  Rachel Zenzinger (SD-19), Jenise May (SD-25), Daniel Kagan (SD-26), Tony Exum (HD-17) and Joe Salazar (HD-31). These races will determine whether Republicans retain their one-seat majority in the state Senate, and whether Democrats can keep control of the state House.

The same five Democrats have also received personal contributions from New York billionaire George Soros. In fact, both billionaires are leading members of the Democracy Alliance, a coalition of left-wing political donors that has steered hundreds of millions of dollars to liberal causes over the past decade. Spending tens of millions of dollars in outside money to “wrest back control” from Republicans at the state level is a major priority for the Alliance this election cycle, according to the Washington Post.

One way or another, the environmental left is making a big move in Colorado this year. The anti-fracking campaign isn’t going anywhere – it’s just going to be reassigned to support a much bigger political operation funded by Steyer and other left-wing donors.

There’s nothing wrong with this political spending, of course, since the First Amendment applies to left-wing billionaires as much as right-wing billionaires or anyone else. But it would be wrong to think that environmental politics are out of the picture in Colorado this election season just because we won’t be voting on anti-fracking ballot measures.

The environmental left isn’t finished with Colorado. Not by a long stretch.

Simon Lomax is an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute and a consultant who advises pro-business groups. From 2004 to 2012, he was a news reporter covering energy and environmental policy in Washington, D.C. Contact him at simon@i2i.org.

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