DENVER — A gusher of proposed ballot initiatives on hydraulic fracturing is poised to flood the November ballot as Colorado digs in for a gritty election battle between the oil and gas industry and environmentalists.
Nothing has qualified yet, but it would be no surprise if as many as a half-dozen proposals reach the Nov. 4 ballot, setting up what could become a national proxy war on energy development akin to last year's debate on gun control.
"I think this will be the test case. The East and West Coast environmental groups and big money are putting everything in here," said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. "I think they would go to California, except it's too expensive and the governor there is also opposing it strongly. So we're now ground zero in the battle over fracking in this country."
Fracking opponents were first out of the chute, filing more than a dozen proposed statewide initiatives since January that would clamp down on hydraulic fracturing in a state whose economic recovery has hinged in large part on its robust energy sector.
Local Control Colorado has filed a proposal to allow localities to ban oil and gas development within their borders. Others have submitted measures requiring oil and gas wells to be at least 1,500 to 2,640 feet away from homes, schools or businesses.
They may not be popular with the business community, but foes of fracking may have momentum on their side. The cities of Boulder, Broomfield, Fort Collins and Lafayette approved anti-fracking measures in November.
"We will cast the net quite wide on this. We're hoping to have volunteers from all over the country," said Cliff Willmeng, a spokesman for the Colorado Community Rights Network who is leading the push for an amendment allowing localities to ban for-profit corporations.
"We view this as a genuine civil rights movement of our time," said Mr. Willmeng. "We would compare the amount of outreach and appeal of this to the way the Freedom Riders worked in the 1960s."
After losing last year's local races, however, fracking proponents are fired up for round two. Instead of sticking to defense, supporters of energy development have swung back with their own ballot initiatives while investing heavily in ad campaigns touting fracking's safety record.
Republican state Reps. Frank McNulty and Jerry Sonnenberg filed a measure last week that would prohibit localities with fracking bans from receiving severance tax revenue from oil and gas development.
"It is the height of hypocrisy for the Boulders and Fort Collins' of the world to benefit from oil and gas taxes so long as they have an oil and gas ban in place," Mr. Sonnenberg said in a statement.
Former Centennial Mayor Randy Pye submitted a proposal Friday that would prohibit localities from passing energy regulations that are more restrictive than those of the state.
"With more than $29 billion in economic output and $1.6 billion in public revenue in 2012, our energy industry is a key part of our economy," said an American Petroleum Institute mailer sent to voters this month. "More than 100,000 jobs are supported for Colorado families."
Pro-industry groups also have moved quickly to line up support among businesses, economic development groups and elected officials. Although it's hard to find a Republican lawmaker who is not pro-fracking, the looming ballot fight has created a rift in the state's Democratic Party.
On one side is Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat and former geologist who famously drank fracking fluid to prove its safety. He has championed the energy industry and touted the state's oil and gas rules as the toughest in the nation.
On the other is Rep. Jared Polis, Colorado Democrat, who feuded with the industry last year after discovering oil and gas operations near his vacation home in Weld County. Two weeks ago, Denver's KDVR-TV cited "multiple high-level Democratic sources" identifying the multimillionaire as the financial backer of at least one anti-fracking measure.
The Boulder County Democratic Party has posted messages online supporting the anti-fracking proposals, but notes that the party has not endorsed any of them.
"The politics of the Democratic Party are lining up with Hickenlooper leading one side and Jared Polis leading the other," said Mr. McNulty. "This sort of Hickenlooper-Polis feud hasn't yet boiled over, but it's something that's there, it's real, and we'll see if it happens with these initiatives."
Whatever the outcome, analysts say, the Colorado fracking battle is likely to have implications for national issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline, the oil and gas boom and the Obama administration's climate change agenda.
"There's a huge amount at stake," Mr. Ciruli said.
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