In June, in a sparsely populated county in northern New Mexico, a primary election surprisingly unseated an incumbent County Commissioner. No one seemed to notice. But, apparently, high-ranking Democrats to the north were paying attention.
The northern New Mexico county is Mora. The high-ranking Democrats: from Colorado. The election upset was about Mora County's oil-and-gas drilling ban.
In April 2013, the Mora County Commission voted, 2 to 1, and passed the first-in-the-nation county-wide ban on all oil-and-gas drilling. It was spearheaded by Commission Chairman John Olivas—an environmental activist. Since then, two lawsuits have been filed against the little county because of the anti-drilling ordinance.
Olivas didn't just lose in the Democrat primary election, he was, according to the Albuquerque Journal, "soundly beaten" by George Trujillo—59.8% to 34.2%. Trujillo campaigned on a repeal of the ordinance and has said he is open to a limited amount of drilling in the eastern edge of the county.
Mora County's ban on all drilling for hydro-carbons, not just fracking, was incited by an out-of-state group: the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), which has also been active in Colorado.
In Colorado, a Boulder-based Democrat Congressman and environmental activist, Jared Polis, has worked hard to collect thousands of signatures—spending, according to the Wall Street Journal, "millions of dollars of his own cash to promote the measures"—to get two anti-oil-and-gas initiatives on November's ballot.
Polis' proposed initiative 89 would have given local governments control over environmental regulations under an "environmental bill of rights"—which mirrors language promoted by CELDF and used in Mora County. Polis also backed ballot measure 88 that would have limited where hydraulic fracturing could be conducted.
The presence of 88 and 89 on the ballot, sparked two opposing measures: 121 and 137. The first would have blocked any oil-or-gas revenue from any local government that limits or bans that industry—an idea also proposed, but not passed, in the New Mexico legislature. The second would have required proponents of initiatives to submit fiscal impact estimates.
On Monday, August 4, Polis and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper held a news conference where they pushed for a compromise to avoid a "messy ballot fight." Instead, they are proposing an18-member task force to issue recommendations to the Colorado Legislature next year on how to minimize conflicts between residents and the energy industry. Later in the day, an agreement was reached and both sides pulled the opposing measures.
Hickenlooper said the suggested restrictions, if passed, posed "a significant threat to Colorado's economy"—which they would. However, given the history of the lowly New Mexico county commissioner, the compromise may be more about "a significant threat to Colorado's" Democrat party.
A November 2013 Quinnipiac poll found that most Coloradans support fracking—only 34 percent oppose it. Noteworthy is the political divide: 80 percent of Republicans support fracking, only 9 percent oppose it. More Democrats oppose fracking, 54 percent, while only 26 percent support it. But the numbers indicate that Republicans are most likely to come to the polls in November to insure the economically advantageous activity is not curtailed—and this scares Democrats such as Hickenlohooper and Senator Mark Udall, who are both up for reelection in November. Udall's 2014 Republican opponent Congressman Cory Gardner points to the economic benefits of fracking, as seen in North Dakota and Texas.
In addition to driving Republicans to the polls, the anti-fracking measures didn't have a high probability of survival. While Colorado communities have previously passed anti-drilling initiatives—Boulder, Broomfield, Fort Collins, Lafayette, and Longmont—the most recent attempt in Loveland failed after an organized industry effort to educate voters on the safe track record of fracking and its economic benefits. Additionally, in late July, a Boulder County District Court judge struck down Longmont's fracking ban.
Polis presented his initiatives as a "national referendum on fracking." As the Journal states: "In that sense he was right." Colorado Democrats realize that allowing an anti-fracking fervor to drive an election is a dangerous decision. The Democrats support for banning fracking should unseat two top Democrats by driving Republicans to the polls. And, this could become the national referendum on fracking.