Littwin: The Great Colorado Fracking Wars

Mike Littwin
Fair and Unbalanced

As we head into the next stage of the Great Colorado Fracking Wars, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: Rep. Jared Polis has backed himself into a corner — and there may be no way out.

Even Polis seems to realize this. He’s suddenly very quiet. When asked about taking the initiatives to the polls, he says things like there still might be another way to get this done. Certainly the stakes have gotten really high — and the lineup of possible losers is as long as Rockies owner Dick Monfort’s email list.

Polis is an ambitious guy who hit upon an interesting idea — he would use his money (he always uses his money) to force all the parties in the fracking debate to the table, whereupon they’d work out a compromise (or else), and he’d be the hero or maybe the anti-hero, which, to Polis, is much the same thing.

The or-else, of course, would be putting fracking on the ballot, backed by Polis’ money, turning the issue into a $60 million smackdown, of which the only thing you could safely predict was that someone would, in fact, get smacked.

What could go wrong?

Well, the or-else could fail, and the chance for a special legislative session would die. The oil companies, who had to compromise, wouldn’t. The Republicans, who never figured to compromise, wouldn’t. And many Democrats, who would normally be lining up with the environmentalists, would be afraid that doing so could be a disaster for them. (The Democrats may be wrong on that. But, interestingly, there’s at least one group that agrees with them: Colorado Republicans.)

And if the initiatives lose and the top Democrats lose, Polis could be remembered as the Democrat who lost Colorado, which can’t be a good look for a guy who has ambition for a Democratic leadership position in the House. I’d be looking for an offramp, too.

So, here’s where we are.

Establishment Democrats are furious with Polis. Gov. John Hickenlooper was angry enough that he not only took an actual stand — he stood with the oil and gas industry, saying he would do everything in his power to defeat the “radical” initiatives. (OK, don’t panic. When asked what he meant by everything in his power, he said it was just a figure of speech and that, basically, he’d do what he could.) Meanwhile, you know the last place that Sen. Mark Udall wants to be is on the wrong side of the environmental crowd. And yet he had to oppose the initiatives, too. Hickenlooper tried to talk Polis down. Rep. Ed Perlmutter tried to talk Polis down. National Democrats tried to talk Polis down. The plan was to say there was progress and that they’d get ’em next time. Polis stuck with this time.

As I mentioned, the people most likely to agree that this is bad for Democrats are Republicans, which is why Hickenlooper couldn’t get a single one to sign on to a compromise. Still, I wonder if you know of any single-issue-voter pro-frackers. Me neither. Of course, the oil companies will spend all that money on TV ads, which can’t be good for Democrats or for people who watch TV. The bigger danger for Democrats, though, is not fracking but whether the election becomes about Democrats and business and jobs. Hickenlooper wins if he’s the pro-business governor. And if not? Let’s just say Republicans will gleefully add Polis to their list of boogeymen (boogeypeople?) alongside Michael Bloomberg, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

And then there are the environmentalists, many of whom are also unhappy with Polis, even if they won’t say so out loud. But they didn’t really get a seat at the table. Many didn’t like the Polis legislative compromise that the Republicans rejected and about which they weren’t consulted. Some don’t think the initiatives go far enough.

And finally there are the oil and gas people, who are risking more than anyone — and for no good reason. They had to compromise — and didn’t. They apparently want this showdown, thinking that Colorado is a relatively inexpensive state in which to fight. But they also should know that Colorado is one of the greenest states in the country. If there’s any place that oil could lose, it’s right here — and particularly with Polis bankrolling the other side. If the initiatives win and make it into the Colorado Constitution, it’s a huge setback for oil and gas. If the oil companies win, the fracktivists will be back in 2016 anyway. If there are more frack-quakes in Colorado, if there’s some environmental disaster — whether or not it has anything to do with fracking, whether or not it’s even in Colorado — oil could lose. A compromise should have been an easy call — aren’t these guys all about the bottom line? — but politics got in the way.

So, what happens next? No one really knows. This is interesting territory. I’ve talked to a lot of political people in the past few days, and the only consensus is that there isn’t any consensus.

There are some near-term possibilities, though.

The initiatives could draw so many signatures that the oil companies see the real risks involved — and back down. It wouldn’t be too late for a surprise special session.

The initiatives could fail to get enough signatures by Aug. 4 — particularly if Polis were to slow the money — and Polis could blame dysfunctional politics and politicians and vow to be back.

Or there could be a mysterious Plan B that I’ve heard discussed that would give Polis an out, although one Democratic insider put it to me this way: “We’d need a Plan C, D and E.”

Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for


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