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In Colorado, anti-fracking referendums clear ballot hurdle

Protesters gather in front of the Thomas McKee Building with signs on November 20, 2014 in Loveland, Colorado.
John Leyba | The Denver Post | Getty Images
Protesters gather in front of the Thomas McKee Building with signs on November 20, 2014 in Loveland, Colorado.

Colorado is one step closer to having two statewide referendums on fracking go to the voters this fall after proponents turned in nearly 200,000 signatures Monday.

A last-minute push over the weekend by proponents of the measures appears to have paid off for their cause, allowing them to gather more signatures ahead of the Monday deadline. A grassroots coalition called "Yes for Health and Safety Over Fracking" said it submitted enough signatures to place two initiatives on Colorado's November ballot.

The Colorado secretary of state's office confirmed the petition signatures for the two oil and gas measures were turned in Monday before the 3 p.m. local deadline.

"The office will now conduct a 5 percent random sample of submitted signatures to determine whether the proposals meet the threshold to make the ballot," a spokeswoman said. "To get on the ballot, proponents need to submit 98,492 valid voter signatures — 5 percent of the total votes cast for all candidates for Colorado secretary of state in the last general election."

The state has until Sept. 7 to announce whether the two referendums meet the threshold to make the fall ballot.

Initiative 75 would give local governments the authority to regulate oil and gas development, including restricting the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Current state law allows local governments to regulate land use related to oil and gas development as long as it does not conflict with state law.

Initiative 78 would force mandatory setbacks for oil and gas development in Colorado, including requiring any development or fracking to be located more than 2,500 feet away from both an "occupied structure" or "areas of special concern" such as public places and playgrounds as well as waterways.

"We are confident that Coloradans will see these measures for what they are: a backdoor fracking ban that would be economically devastating for our state," said Karen Crummy, a spokesperson for Protect Colorado, an energy industry-backed issue committee fighting measures 75 and 78.

This could end up becoming a costly fight at the ballot box.

Groups, largely funded by the oil and gas companies, have raised more than $15 million to keep the setback and local control measures from going on the ballot. Analysts have suggested the money raised by these opponents could double in the next several months as they battle to defeat the two anti-fracking initiatives.

Proponents of the measures raised less than $500,000 to fund the petition drive. The contributors to the referendum effort include environmental groups such as Food & Water Watch, Sierra Club and Greenpeace, among others.

Lauren Petrie, director of the Rocky Mountain region of Food & Water Watch, said: "This is a good day for Colorado, and it's a good day for democracy. These initiatives will give communities political tools to fend off the oil and gas industry's effort to convert our neighborhoods to industrial sites. This is a significant moment in the national movement to stem the tide of fracking and natural gas."

The setback initiative would reduce an estimated 90 percent of the surface areas in the state for future oil and gas development or hydraulic fracturing operations, according to an impact report from the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission. Also, around 85 percent of Weld County — an area with about 17,000 oil and gas wells at last count — would be unavailable, based on the analysis.

"We continue to believe the worst-case scenario, the passage of Initiative 78, affecting up to 90 percent of the state's acreage, is a less likely event," said FBR analyst Benjamin Salisbury in note Tuesday. "However, we reiterate that the low-probability, potentially high-impact risk warrants concern. We believe this uncertainty overhang could affect E&Ps leveraged to the DJ Basin, especially in urban areas, continuing until Election Day should the initiatives officially make the ballot."

The Denver-Julesburg Basin runs from the northeastern part of Colorado and into several other nearby states.

The proposed Colorado referendums began the petition process in mid-April but it wasn't until mid-May when backers starting accelerating the petition drive and Wall Street started taking notice.

Whiting Petroleum, an oil and natural gas exploration and production company based in Denver, rallied slightly Monday on higher oil prices but remained down 32 percent since mid-May at Monday's close. On Tuesday, the stock reversed course and was down more than 4 percent at midday.

Bill Barrett Corp., a Denver-based company with natural gas and oil exploration and development in the Rocky Mountain region, has fallen 30 percent since mid-May through Monday's close. In Tuesday trading, it was up around 2.5 percent.

Energy companies exposed to the DJ Basin include PDC Energy, Synergy Resources, Bonanza Creek, "and to a lesser extent" Anadarko Petroleum and Carrizo Oil & Gas, according to the Wells Fargo analyst David Tameron.

These stocks were mixed Tuesday with PDC Energy gaining 3.9 percent, while Synergy shed 5.6 percent.

"Our initial read is that there is enough to move forward with the signature verification process," Tameron said.

However, he cautioned: "To be clear, submitting signatures doesn't mean they're on the November ballot. What it does mean is that the process moves forward. Could be as soon as a week or two, or could be a month before we get final decision on whether they'll be placed on the November ballot."