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A major anti-fracking ballot measure in Colorado has failed

Proposition 112 would have forced new oil and gas wells to be placed further away from homes, schools, and water sources.

A natural gas drilling pad near Battlement Mesa, Colorado. Voters are heading to the polls to decide whether such operations would need to move further away from homes.
A natural gas drilling pad near Battlement Mesa, Colorado. Voters are heading to the polls Tuesday to decide whether such operations would need to move further away from homes.
Helen H. Richardson/Denver Post/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

UPDATE, November 7: Proposition 112 has failed to pass in Colorado, with 57 percent of voters casting ballots against it. The result essentially preserves the status quo for oil and gas drilling in the state. See below for why measure proved so contentious.

On Tuesday, Colorado voters will get to weigh in on a major ballot initiative, Proposition 112, that would drastically limit the use of hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. fracking, for natural gas. It’s shaping up to be a hugely divisive issue in a purple state, and it’s a microcosm of the energy and climate fights taking shape across the country.

Colorado is a major fossil fuel producer, ranking 11th in coal, sixth in crude oil, and sixth in natural gas. The oil and gas sector contributes more than $31 billion to the state’s economy and employs more than 232,000 Coloradans. At the same time, Colorado has a booming renewable energy sector employing 17,000 workers and is home to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

But Colorado also generated nearly $50 billion in revenue from outdoor recreation and tourism last year. Some of this tourism, like skiing, is threatened by climate change.

For the state’s 5.6 million residents, this mix of competing interests is reflected in its politics. The Colorado General Assembly’s Senate is led by Republicans, its House by Democrats. The state has a Democratic governor and has sent four Republicans and three Democrats to the House, as well as a Democrat and a Republican to the Senate.

So it’s not too surprising that Proposition 112, which pits the state’s energy industry against its environmental interests, has turned out to be contentious. (You can listen to an episode of the Vox podcast Today, Explained on Proposition 112 here.)

The proposal increases what’s called a “setback distance” for hydraulic fracturing, a technique used to extract oil and natural gas from shale rock formations. Currently, drilling operations have to be kept at minimum 500 feet away from vulnerable locations like schools, homes, and water sources. Proposition 112 would increase that distance to 2,500 feet to limit health and safety risks from potential hazards like chemical leaks and explosions.

According to Colorado Rising, a group campaigning in favor of the proposal, there are more than 50,000 active oil and gas wells throughout the state. Last year, a home less than 200 feet away from an aging well in Firestone, Colorado, exploded and killed two men.

A gas well, in the upper left, covered by tan fencing is less than 200 feet from a home that suffered a fatal house explosion on April 27, 2017 in Firestone, Colorado.
In the upper left, a gas well covered by tan fencing was less than 200 feet from a home that suffered a fatal house explosion on April 27, 2017, in Firestone, Colorado.
RJ Sangosti/Denver Post/Getty Images

So the main argument behind Proposition 112 is that it would enhance public safety. However, “It would also help prevent climate change by making oil and gas harder to access,” wrote former NASA scientist James Hansen in an editorial in the Denver Post.

While methane, the main component of natural gas, burns much cleaner than coal and produces half the greenhouse gas emissions, the gas itself is a major heat trapper. Leaks from natural gas drilling operations could offset many of the gains natural gas provides in shrinking the carbon footprint of energy production. Scientists found earlier this year that global methane emissions are on the rise. And even if all the leaks are sealed, burning natural gas still produces greenhouse gases, so relying on natural gas may not move the planet fast enough to limit global warming to less dangerous levels.

The oil and gas industry has launched a $41 million campaign against Proposition 112, arguing that it would effectively end new drilling in the state since huge swaths of land would suddenly be off-limits. For environmental campaigners, this is a welcome side effect.

It’s also caused some odd political fractures. The Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, Jared Polis, opposes the measure, as does the outgoing incumbent, Democrat John Hickenlooper. Hickenlooper is considering holding a special legislative session if voters pass the setback measure for hydraulic fracturing. He said it would trigger an economic recession if passed.

Opponents say that Proposition 112 would hurt a major industry in the state, with dire consequences for employment. “First and foremost, the intent of this ballot measure is to ban oil and gas development in the state,” Karen Crummy, a spokeswoman for the industry-funded group Protect Colorado, told Colorado Public Radio.

Meanwhile, there’s at least one Republican running on his support for Proposition 112: Eric Rutherford, who is running for state House.

According to an October 22 poll from the Denver Post, 52 percent of Colorado voters are in favor of Proposition 112. If it passes, it would take effect immediately after the governor certifies the election.

The proposition is just one of many energy and environmental fights across the United States that will come to a head on November 6. The state of Washington, for example, is voting Tuesday on Initiative 1631, which would tax carbon dioxide emissions.

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