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Colorado voters reject stricter rules on new oil, gas wells

November 7, 2018
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Students Elise Hanley, 11, left, and Grace Hinman,13, work on their school work as voters below cast their ballots at the Library 21c on Tuesday, November 6, 2018, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The library will be open until 7 p.m. for voters to drop off their mail in ballots or vote in person. (Dougal Brownlie/The Gazette via AP)

DENVER (AP) — Colorado voters rejected a proposal Tuesday that would have tightly restricted where new oil and gas wells could be drilled across the state — the latest development in a contentious debate about how much control state and local governments can exert over the powerful fossil fuels industry.

Proposition 112 would have required that new wells be at least 2,500 feet (750 meters) from occupied buildings and “vulnerable areas” such as parks, creeks and irrigation canals. It also would have allowed local governments to require even bigger buffer zones.

The state currently requires that wells be 500 feet (150 meters) from homes and 1,000 feet (300 meters) from schools.

Opponents warned that the measure would ruin the oil and gas industry and drag down other economic sectors in Colorado, which ranks seventh in the nation in domestic oil production and fifth in natural gas production.

“We appreciate Colorado voters who realized what a devastating impact this measure would have had on our state’s economy, school funding, public safety and other local services,” said Karen Crummy, a spokeswoman for the industry-funded group Protect Colorado.

She pointed to a state analysis that determined the measure would have put 85 percent of non-federal land in Colorado off-limits to drilling. The proposal did not apply to federal land, which makes up about 36 percent of the state.

According to the analysis by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry, the measure also would have prevented drilling on large swaths of land along the Front Range urban corridor, including in Weld County where houses and other developments sit atop the expansive Denver-Julesburg Basin.

A consortium of business groups released a study in July concluding that by 2030, there would be up to 147,800 fewer jobs in Colorado, up to $1.1 billion in lost tax revenue for state and local governments and up to $141 billion in lost oil and gas production if the measure passed.

But the dire warnings didn’t stop backers from collecting an estimated 123,000 valid signatures to put the proposal on the ballot. They argued that the stricter rules would better protect people and the environment and give property owners more certainty about the location of new wells.

They also said the forecast on jobs was exaggerated and that the state report estimating most non-federal lands would be off limits didn’t take into account directional drilling, which involves boring underground horizontally and could be used to access pockets of gas from beyond a buffer zone.

Voters also rejected an industry-backed companion measure that would have made it easier for property owners to seek compensation from the government for actions that diminish their property’s value.

The energy proposals were among more than a dozen statewide initiatives on the ballot.

Voters once again rejected a proposal to raise income tax rates to fund public education in Colorado — the third such ballot measure to fail in the tax-averse state since 2011.

Amendment 73 would have increased the state individual income tax rate for people who earn more than $150,000 a year and boosted the corporate income tax rate to raise an additional $1.6 billion annually for schools.

Voters rejected similar measures in 2011 and 2013 by a 2-to-1 margin.

Opponents argued the latest measure would have been bad for the economy and would not have guaranteed better academic performance. They also said the Legislature would not have been able to adjust tax thresholds to account for inflation.

“Clearly, this election was never about who supports public education. We all support better schools for our students and higher pay for our hard-working teachers,” said Dave Davia, co-chairman of the “No on 73″ campaign. “Amendment 73 was the wrong answer to improving education.”

Supporters argued that the state needs a sustainable source of income after funding was cut following the 2008 recession.

Voters also endorsed two amendments to weaken the political influence in congressional and state redistricting after the 2020 census.

New maps would be drawn by legislative staff. Panels with equal numbers of Republicans, Democrats and independents would consider them, and the state Supreme Court would approve the final versions.

Electoral maps have come under fire in states across the country in recent years.

In Colorado, courts have stepped in to choose district maps in three of the last four redistricting cycles. Both parties have been accused of gerrymandering maps to their benefit.

Two initiatives to increase funding for transportation and highway projects were rejected. Voters also rejected another to lower the age requirement to serve in the Legislature from 25 to 21 and endorsed one to clarify language in the state Constitution to ban slavery and involuntary servitude under all circumstances.

A similar slavery initiative failed in 2016. Supporters said then it was likely defeated because of confusing ballot language.

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