FORT COLLINS, Colo.—Forget weed and secession, Colorado's elections were fracked.
On Tuesday, voters in three Colorado cities, including this college town about an hour north of Denver and nearby Lafayette and Boulder, passed initiatives against fracking, a drilling technique key to extracting oil and natural gas around the country but controversial for its environmental risks. A similar measure in the town of Broomfield failed by an extremely narrow margin, and two cities in Ohio, Bowling Green and Youngstown, also defeated anti-fracking initiatives.
The efforts were among several high-profile initiatives on the ballot in Colorado, including one in which 11 northern counties sought to secede from the state (five voted to support the measure) and another that approved a new tax on marijuana, which was legalized last year. All were overshadowed by high-profile gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, but the fracking votes could influence the conversation taking place nationwide over the controversial drilling technique.
Backers of the anti-fracking ballot initiatives in Colorado, which to varying degrees sought to ban or temporarily delay fracking, declared victory Tuesday night and said it portends well for other anti-fracking efforts around the country. Though, thanks to Broomfield, they could not declare a sweep.
"I think this will raise awareness," said Democratic state Rep. Joann Ginal, who represents Fort Collins, at a victory party for the anti-fracking campaign Tuesday night. "I know that New York and Pennsylvania and Ohio and many other states have been trying to raise awareness. I think this will result in more awareness."
Colorado has always been a large oil and gas producer, and thanks to fracking and horizontal drilling, companies here are ramping up oil production, especially in this area on the Front Range, just east of the Rocky Mountains and north of Denver. This has prompted a polarizing debate over whether and how much to allow fracking, which has pitted Denver's northern suburban voters against the state's Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, who has fully supported robust oil and gas development and maintained fracking can be done safely.
He is not the only one who thinks so.
"There's nothing inherently dangerous in fracking that sound engineering practices can't accomplish," Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said this week in an interview with the Boston Globe. Indeed, President Obama and his administration have been consistently bullish on natural gas—and specifically fracking—which extracts both oil and gas.
Nonetheless, the residents of Fort Collins and its neighbors maintain they don't want fracking until they can ensure it is being done safely. Companies have been fracking for decades, but not so much in urban areas. That has changed in the past few years, as horizontal drilling has enabled companies to reach new formations miles underground.
Kelly Giddens, who directs the Citizens for a Healthy Fort Collins campaign that backed the five-year moratorium on fracking, said the city should wait until a state health-agency study is complete in mid-2016 before deciding.
"Our focus has been on how can they solve problems if they don't know what they are?" Giddens said Tuesday night as the results were coming in. "We're not looking at real data and the real health effects they could be causing."
What happens now is unclear. Another nearby Colorado city, Longmont, already imposed a fracking ban and is now facing lawsuits by Hickenlooper and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. The reasons for each suit are different (Hickenlooper's administration is worried about the balance between state and local rights), but the result for Longmont is the same: a protracted legal mess.
"It's not that I don't believe in fracking, but we're just going to get sued by the state," said Luke Callen, a musician and bar-goer who happened to be at the Giddens's victory party Tuesday night in Fort Collins. He said the vote will amount to basically "a gesture: 'Here's what we all feel.' "
Giddens is well aware of Longmont's predicament, but she points out that Longmont imposed a permanent ban, whereas Fort Collins' is a temporary moratorium.
"We feel this is something that's legally defensible," Giddens said. "It's about protecting the health and rights of our community, so it's something that should stand up in court."
Giddens and everyone else living on the Front Range will likely get the chance to find out. Colorado's fracking fight really has just begun.