Fracking Colorado: This Is What (Buying a) Democracy Looks Like

New reports from the Boulder Weekly and the Colorado Independent have revealed the full weight of the fracking industry’s influence.

by Jesse Coleman

July 29, 2016

While nearly everyone is aware of the issue of money in politics, it is rare that the actual mechanisms of how corporations control elections are revealed.

Fracking Drill Site in Colorado

A fracking drill site in the Colorado plains, just east of the Rocky Mountains. Photo by Wild Earth Guardians / Creative Commons.

Ever wonder what it’s like to be a pawn in the oil and gas industry’s political ambitions? This pencil, hired by oil and gas front group Protect Colorado, summed it up:

“It feels like shit to fucking wear this thing, but it’s 25 bucks an hour.”

Colorado Pencil Guy

Photo by Greenpeace.

And there are a lot of people taking the oil and gas industry’s money in Colorado these days.

Anadarko Petroleum and a group of fracking companies, most from outside Colorado, have pumped more than $75 million into PR firms and front groups in the state since 2014. These millions are primarily aimed at preventing Coloradans from voting for two ballot measures that would regulate the oil and gas industry. $75 million is a serious amount of money, even in a state that — according the Brennan Center — has one of the highest levels of secret political spending in the nation.

The largest single recipient of the fracking industry’s war chest is a PR firm called Pac/West Communications. Pac/West, known for creating independent-sounding groups on behalf of large corporate clients, netted nearly $30 million from oil and gas companies in 2014 alone. In return for the fracking cash, Pac/West built perhaps the best funded and most formidable political advocacy operations in any state.

Strategy of Fracking Industry Revealed

Mark Truax, a vice president of Pac/West Communications, revealed the depth and breadth of the oil and gas industry’s political strategy in a transcript released by Greenpeace and printed in full by the Boulder Weekly.

Mr. Truax’s presentation outlines a sophisticated plan to counter the popular cry for fracking regulations with a gusher of oil cash.

Here are some of the strategies Mark Truax outlines:

Take over city councils:

“We then also elected a pro city council, a pro-energy city council 7-6 on the conservative count, my count is like 9-4 in our favor for Denver City Council. To try and push something through there, which the opposition was trying to do, is now very difficult.”

Spend tens of millions of dollars to gather information on Colorado voters so it can manipulate election outcomes and keep setback and community rights initiatives off the ballot:

“We have scored 3.9 million Colorado voters in our databases, on their opinion of fracking. Everything we do then gets fed back in to this database. So that we can use it at a later time. We’ve knocked on 1.7 million doors, we’ve done 9 statewide surveys, we have done extensive phone research, and mail research, all of that information if I ever have contact it’s fed back in to that file.”

The transcript, which can be found in full here, also details Pac/West’s plans to change the constitution so citizens will no longer be able to put forward ballot measures in the future.

To accomplish these political goals, Pac/West Communications, with funding from Anadarko Petroleum, created two tax exempt “charitable” groups, Protect Colorado and Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED).

It was Protect Colorado that hired the pencil. As the following video shows, these industry front groups are focused on scare tactics and spreading misinformation about fracking regulations, not “education,” as front group spokesperson Karen Crummy often claims.

On July 28, the Denver Business Post reported that Protect Colorado has a budget of $25 million for its 2016 effort.

Industry Funded Harassment

The oil and gas strategy to control the ballot process in Colorado does not stop with the plan Truax outlined in his 2015 talk.

In recent weeks, Coloradans have experienced an truly unprecedented attempt to stop a ballot measure from coming to a vote at all. Unlike normal ballot campaigns, where voters must decide whether to support or oppose a measure on election day, in Colorado the fracking industry is trying to strip voters of the right to decide altogether. The effort is called “decline to sign” and the aim is to prevent regulations from appearing on the ballot, by preventing organizers from gathering enough preliminary signatures.

The effort includes more than just TV ads and pencils trying to scare people about regulations. The oil and gas industry has also unleashed an army of paid harassers, who have targeted volunteers trying to gather signatures for the ballot. As one signature gatherer describes, men surrounded an elderly signature gatherer and scared off people trying to sign their name.

The fight over fracking ballot measures in Colorado illustrates the lengths that corporations are willing to go to control politics. Will the fracking industry buy its preferred regulatory environment in Colorado? Will Coloradans be stripped of their right to vote on these ballot measures? While signatures for the ballot measure are due August 8, the questions about the role of fracking money in Colorado are likely to linger.

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