TIME 2014 Election

Friendly Fire Over Colorado Fracking Could Cost Democrats the U.S. Senate

U.S. Representative Jared Polis during the Colorado Democratic Party's State Assembly in Denver on April 12, 2014.
U.S. Representative Jared Polis during the Colorado Democratic Party's State Assembly in Denver on April 12, 2014. David Zalubowski—AP

The reelections of the Democratic governor and U.S. Senator in Colorado are threatened by ballot initiatives pushed by a renegade House Democrat

Correction appended July 15, 2014

With a nail biter election on the horizon that flip control of the U.S. senate, the biggest concern of many Colorado Democrats is one of their own—a wealthy congressman named Jared Polis who is pushing statewide ballot initiatives that party strategists fear could increase Republican turnout in November.

Polis has introduced and is helping garner enough signatures for a state ballot effort would restrict oil and gas fracking, a major issue in his home district where four of the five biggest towns have banned it.

The initiatives have so scared Democrats that Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has spent the better part of the last month trying to come up with a legislative compromise so he could call the state legislature back into a special session to waylay Polis. But with an Aug. 4 deadline to lock in ballot initiatives, hope for a legislative fix is dwindling.

Meanwhile, Democrats have privately and publicly called on Polis to withdraw the initiatives, but he has refused to do so, saying the Democratic base supports these moves. While that is true, the fracking issue could motivate Republicans more, by making the oil and gas industry front and center this election year.

“The concern among many Democrats is that the ballot initiatives that we’re talking about are very very appealing the farther left you go; troubling at the center; and on the right, they are turn out machines,” says Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist and Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign manager. “If you’re in a safe district, you’re not concerned. But if you’re a Democrat that has to win statewide these things look a lot different.”

At stake isn’t just Democrat Hickenlooper’s tough reelection, but that of fellow Democrat Senator Mark Udall—and, given the electoral map, potential control of the Senate. Oil and gas groups are gearing up to pour in $20 million in Colorado to defeat the initiatives, which they say would essential halve or effectively halt fracking in Colorado. Fracking generated $29.5 billion in economic activity in Colorado in 2012, creating 111,000 direct jobs with an average wage of $74,811, according to the Colorado Petroleum Association.

“Oil and gas has been the spark of the recovery for Colorado and these initiatives would destroy that,” says Stan Dempsey, head of the association. “Why [Polis] thinks that only he has the perfect solution rather than the experts at the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission is beyond me.” Dempsey notes that the industry just went through an extensive rule making process last year in Colorado.

First elected in 2008, Polis is a wealthy businessman and philanthropist, who founded a number of ecommerce companies, including ProFlowers.com. In 2008, he became the first openly gay parent elected to Congress, and while in office sponsored the Race to the Top education reform and has been a defender of the virtual currency Bitcoin. He represents a relatively safe seat, and given his personal fortune is not beholden to leaders or rich patrons to fundraise.

He first got involved in fracking issues in early 2012 when he lobbied Encana Corp. to halt construction on wells close to Red Hawk Elementary School in Erie, Colorado. “Many families have moved out of that area,” Polis tells TIME. “It absolutely hurt the housing market, then people saw fracking going in.” Polis says that having fracking within eyesight of a building reduces property values between 5% and 15%. He also cites environmental concerns given that there were 400 spills last year alone, many of them in populated areas.

Polis says he isn’t anti-fracking and that he believes in an “all of the above” energy policy. “It’s exciting that our state is contributing to American energy independence,” Polis says. But, he adds, he wants companies to act more respectfully of the population. One of his initiatives would require extending setbacks to 2,000 feet from existing buildings, a move that would cut in half the amount of available land or fracking in Colorado, Dempsey says.

Polis argues that it’s such a big issue for his constituents, he cannot ignore the problem. He would prefer a legislative solution, but the “window for that is closing,” leaving him no choice but to proceed with his ballot initiatives. He has contributed personal money to the push to get enough signatures to get on the ballot.

The Colorado Petroleum Association’s Dempsey compares Polis’s tactics, given the ongoing legislative process, to “negotiating with a gun to our heads.” “If he was serious he’d set aside the ballot initiatives, sit down with all the stakeholders and thrash out a compromise,” Dempsey said of Polis. “But it’s his way or the high way and the high way is going to be an expensive and potentially divisive political fight.”

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the fracking setback in the Polis ballot initiative. It is 2,000 feet.

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