One of the best-known and most often invoked tropes in our political mythology is the one about the distant big-city bureaucrat conniving with a politician and monied interests to undermine the will of Small Town, USA. It’s a parable that you will probably hear in some form in the upcoming presidential debates. But while it is a cartoonish cliche, the caricature nonetheless persists because brouhahas like the battle over oil and gas drilling in Colorado periodically reminded us of the parable’s general accuracy.
In that fight, things are getting ugly, fast. As I reported a few months ago, for all the national headlines this conflict has generated, and for all the talk of energy on the presidential campaign, the fight over hydraulic fracturing (whose safety was again called into question last week) will be won or lost at the most local of local levels. Already, the industry has been successful in convincing many states to avoid enforcing basic regulations already on the books. Now there’s a push to crush new rules before they are put on the books. Indeed, here in the state hosting the first presidential debate – a state with one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world – the distant bureaucrats, politicians and monied interests are deploying every instrument at their disposal to quash local communities’ efforts to create basic quality-of-life safeguards.
In an unprecedented move last month, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission took the extraordinary step of suing Longmont, Colorado in an attempt to overturn that city’s ordinances regulating drilling in residential neighborhoods and mandating water-quality monitoring at fracking sites. Underscoring the bipartisan nature of the assault on local communities, the suit follows previous threats by Republican Attorney General John Suthers (D) to sue local communities that dare try to regulate drilling in their communities.
To know that this situation exemplifies the ancient fears of distant elites colluding with Big Money is to remember two key facts:
1) Hickenlooper’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign was fueled by massive contributions from the fossil fuel industry, and he has paid back the favor by appointing an industry crony to the commission, appearing in the industry’s radio ads, and publicly ignoring the many scientific studies documenting the possible dangers of fracking.
2) the lobbying arm of Colorado’s oil and gas industry promptly inserted itself into the state’s move against Longmont, wholeheartedly backing the suit with its own motions. As the Longmont Times-Call reports, the industry’s lobbying group is actually trying to overturn the city’s basic right “to suspend or revoke a local permit if state or federal rules are violated.”
Put it all together, and the ugly parable comes to life. Here you have a distant state commission effectively working as the lawyer for an industry lobbying group against a local community. And not just any old state commission, mind you – but one directed by a governor whose rise to power was funded by the very industry that has a financial interest in overriding the community’s objections.
The good news is that the response to these heavy handed tactics has been swift. Longmont citizens have staged public protests against Hickenlooper. Additionally, the Longmont city attorney has filed a motion to dismiss this suit, noting that the commission is so eager to do the industry’s bidding, it is actually trying to preemptively crush the regulations even though, as the Boulder Daily Camera reports, “no company has yet filed for a state permit to drill in Longmont since the adoption of the new ordinances.” Meanwhile, 82 local officials just signed an open letter deriding Hickenlooper for devoting “valuable tax dollars to bring litigation against one of its own communities,” especially when “courts have upheld local regulatory authority over the impacts of oil and gas development for over 20 years.”
The bad news, of course, is that with such huge potential fossil-fuel industry profits riding on the efforts to undermine community regulations, those efforts are not about to end. For all the cheery election-year rhetoric glorifying Small Town, USA, money still means those distant bureaucrats, politicians and corporate interests will do whatever they can to get their way – and no paeans to “local control” will back them down.