Community rights

Voters in November may still be asked to weigh in on ballot initiatives that address how gas and oil development are handled in Colorado, but the number of such questions and their scope is diminishing as Election Day approaches. Supporters of Initiative 75, which proposed a Community Rights Amendment to the Colorado Constitution, withdrew the measure Monday, recognizing the long odds they faced in gathering the required number of signatures. In the initiative’s demise, its supporters and voters – as well as the state Constitution – were spared unnecessary pain.

The Community Rights Amendment was one of a handful of initiatives culled from the 19 originally proposed. It was considered the most far-reaching. It would have amended the Colorado Constitution to insert a “right to local self-government” such that communities could enact laws to protect, “health, safety and welfare by establishing the fundamental rights of individuals, their communities, and nature, and by securing those rights using prohibitions and other means.” In so doing, cities, counties and towns would have been empowered to define what rights, if any, corporations had to do business within a given locality. Further, the proposed amendment ensured that any local law was not subject to either limitation or pre-emption by state, federal or international law. It was, to put it mildly, a tall order.

Designed to bolster local communities’ power in negotiating with gas and oil companies about where, whether and how they extract the resources in a particular area, Initiative 75 would have served to fatally undermine the statewide regulatory process embodied by the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission. While the COGCC and its rules are not perfect, they provide a workable framework for communities and the industry to navigate in shaping how energy development will occur.

The fundamental rift between those that want no gas and oil development and those whose sole raison d’etre lies in extracting what is beneath the surface is one that cannot be mended, via constitutional amendment or otherwise. While the statewide rules governing gas and oil development – as well as those components handled locally – favor industry insofar as they recognize the industry’s right to operate in Colorado, they attempt to address human health and environmental concerns that residents rightly raise about gas and oil activity. Initiative 75, in its sweeping language that would have given communities the right to prohibit virtually any industrial pursuits, would have tipped the scales far in the favor of those who oppose gas and oil development or any other objectionable industry – permanently and irreparably in the Colorado Constitution. That is not where such matters belong.

While there may be room to balance more evenly the power between the state, its localities and the gas and oil industry, it must be done in give-and-take conversation wherein all parties are invested and committed to building some kind of consensus. Initiative 75 did not do that, but it was effective in raising localities’ profile in the ongoing discussion about gas and oil development in Colorado. While it was not destined for the ballot, the proposed amendment and those that have already fallen away should provoke meaningful consideration of how better to manage the very real and understandable tension that gas and oil development creates.

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