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As Ballot Deadline Looms, A Muddied Debate Over Colo. Fracking

Just off Interstate Highway 25, Drill Rig 1548 of Encana Natural Gas stands near homes in the town of Frederick in Weld County, Colorado.
Just off Interstate Highway 25, Drill Rig 1548 of Encana Natural Gas stands near homes in the town of Frederick in Weld County, Colorado.

"Hello. Are you registered to vote in Colorado?"

It's a refrain many in the state have grown to loathe this summer — heard outside their favorite grocery store or shopping mall as signature gatherers race toward an Aug. 4 deadline to put four energy-related measures on the November ballot.

With two of those measures backed by environmentalists, and the other two by industry-supported groups, all of the energy talk is leading to confusion among potential voters.

Among the hassled Colorado shoppersis Veronica Canto, a registered independent from Denver. On one day, she was approached by signature gatherers three separate times while visiting the downtown 16th Street Mall.

"They come up and out of nowhere. You're like, uh, man," says Canto, who works in education and says she hasn't had a lot of time to research oil and gas development.

"The only reason I thought about fracking today, for like the two minutes after, maybe, they left, was because they had asked me," she says.

Gov. John Hickenlooper had hoped to pass legislation that would stave off some of the ballot measures, but those efforts stalled mid-July. And lately, many Coloradans who don't normally think about energy are being deluged with messages by groups with very different agendas.

Sometimes, voters don't know what the petition they're signing actually stands for.

"You have both sides of the fracking issue, and they're putting out their talking points and they're spending lots of money, trying to persuade the electorate to their views," explains Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University. "And all that conflicting information can really muddy the issue for voters."

A few blocks away on the 16th Street Mall, signature gatherer Jessica Cerise is at work for the pro-environment group Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy.

Fired up, Patrick Klimper signs her petitions — backing ameasure that would increase setbacks between wells and homes from 500 to 2,000 feet, and a second one aimed at giving communities that ban fracking more legal protections in court.

"All I know is that we need to get rid of fracking, that's the big thing. I just think it's not great for the environment," he says.

So far voters in five Colorado communities have placed restrictions on fracking. But this July, a district court judge struck down one of those measures.

Inside a Denver high-rise office building, signature gatherer Telbe Storbeck talks to workers at the commercial real estate firm Cassidy Turley.

Storbeck explains that his measure is supported by an industry-backed group called Protecting Colorado. The measure he's promoting would prevent communities that ban fracking from accepting state oil and gas tax dollars.

"So it takes away that — so it's this fairness issue," he explains.

Most workers gathered in this conference room see their jobs in real estate linked to the energy industry — including Managing Director Steward Mosko.

"We're as close to being activists in these types of things as possible. We have to be because it affects our livelihood," he says.

Mosko signed the first initiative, and a second one that would require future ballot issues to have fiscal impact statements.

But back at the 16th Street Mall, Canto says her interactions with signature gatherers were unhelpful.

"I would say that even reading the information that they had and having them speak to me — they're both just as confusing as each other," she says.

Canto says she hasn't made up her mind yet on the topic. She intends to weigh both sides of the issue, judging how it will affect her life. All she knows now is that she won't be turning to signature gatherers for help.

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