- Associated Press - Saturday, August 30, 2014

AULT, Colo. (AP) — Jamie Presgrove has watched with trepidation as oil wells encroach on her rural property east of Ault, where pump jacks are becoming new neighbors to Weld County residents accustomed to solitude.

In a few weeks, Presgrove’s sweeping views of Longs Peak will be transformed by a not-uncommon sight in Weld County - a “fortress” built to house equipment for hydraulic fracturing, an oil and gas extraction process that will be used at eight wells drilled about 600 feet from Presgrove’s home.

“Here I am looking out my picture window at this pristine valley, and now it’s going to be industrial,” said Presgrove.

After a neighbor sold his mineral rights for a property across the road, Presgrove can do little to stop Synergy Resources Corp. from drilling the wells. Nonetheless, Presgrove was looking forward to voting in November on a ballot initiative mandating that wells be removed at least 2,000 feet from existing homes like hers.

But like grassroots activists across the state, Presgrove feels disenfranchised by a last-ditch compromise Gov. John Hickenlooper made to keep four measures related to oil and gas development off the November ballot. Instead of putting the issues of setbacks, local control of industry regulation, and oil and gas tax revenue to vote this fall, Hickenlooper created an 18-person commission charged with studying oil and gas development in Colorado.

The compromise scrapped months of signature gathering and millions of dollars poured into the initiatives from both industry advocates and those concerned with the potential health impacts of oil and gas proliferation. Some grass-roots groups, which had the financial and political backing of U.S. Rep Jared Polis, D-Colo., felt bitterly betrayed following Polis’ announcement that he supported the governor’s move.

Now, Presgrove feels mostly alone in the battle to get accountability from Synergy, which in July received seven permits to drill nearby from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state’s regulatory agency.

While shocking to residents like Presgrove, the governor’s compromise was politically predictable, said Peter Hanson, an assistant professor of political science at Denver University.

“The initiatives created a very uncertain political landscape for the Democrats,” Hanson said. “(They were) going to bring in a great deal of outside money into this state … and really distract the Democrats from issues they wanted to talk about this election.”

In a year when Republican turnout for midterm elections is expected to be high, Democrats would be taking a gamble putting two liberal-backed initiatives on the ballot, Hanson said. Polis stood largely alone among Colorado’s Democratic leadership in his support of ballot initiatives 88 and 89, while many prominent Colorado Democrats, including Hickenlooper, opposed them from the start.

“I think it was Gov. Hickenlooper’s intent all along to reach some kind of compromise,” Hanson said. “The fact that it happened at the 11th hour is really typical of politics.”

Although their removal from ballot consideration has left Coloradans like Presgrove feeling left out of the loop, Hanson thinks initiatives are a dangerous way to affect policy change. Presgrove and others are better off directing their need for change toward the Colorado Legislature, which can pass more nuanced laws, Hanson said.

He calls initiatives “blunt tools” often written by advocacy groups, “with no chance to refine the language.”

“It’s just a take-it-or-leave-it option for the voters,” Hanson said. “The legislative process - for all of its flaws - is just a better way to make policy.”

Ballot initiatives, nonetheless, feel empowering to most people, Hanson admits - for Presgrove, Initiative 88 would have given her a say in the transformation of her neighborhood of 15 years, where tank batteries and pump jacks are starting to fill cornfields and cow pastures.

Presgrove is particularly concerned that the network of dirt roads east of Ault will not be able to withstand the heavy traffic that comes with setting up a well pad. She doesn’t have a problem with the work the oil and gas industry does, she said, so long as it’s not in her neighborhood - a common sentiment along the Front Range.

“I’m all for the industry. I get it,” she said. “But I don’t need it in my neighborhood.”

Synergy has told her it intends to start work sometime around Sept. 1, and expects the majority of the company’s heavy equipment to be in the area for at least 18 months, Presgrove said.

“I used to live in Larimer County, but it was getting too populated. I moved out here for peace and quiet,” Presgrove added. But, times have changed as the shale boom in eastern Colorado has exploded, expanding farther west.

“Who knew then? Everything’s come in the last year or two,” Presgrove said.

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Information from: Fort Collins Coloradoan, https://www.coloradoan.com

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