DENVER – The debate over the fracking bans in Broomfield, Fort Collins and Lafayette on the November ballot has been a heated one in recent months, with plenty of media coverage of claims by opponents of fracking.
But missing from any media coverage of the ideological crusade against fracking is the checkered history of the most influential voices in the anti-fracking movement, and the underground money machine that sustains it.
The leader of an initiative to ban fracking in Lafayette, for example, has a long criminal rap sheet, and his fellow activists have well-documented stints with radical liberal causes.
One of the leading groups pushing the fracking bans in Lafayette is East Boulder County United, whose spokesman Cliff Willmeng has taken an aggressive tack against the fracking industry. Willmeng’s mother, Merrily Mazza, is running for City Council in Lafayette on an anti-oil and gas platform. Willmeng wears his hatred of the industry on his sleeve, even posting a picture on his Facebook page of him proudly flipping off an imaginary oil executive.
That in-your-face style isn’t left to his political tactics alone — such as recently accusing Governor Hickenlooper of instituting an imaginary “gag order” regarding fracking fluids during the flood — but in his personal life as well.
According to the Colorado Bureau of Investigations, Willmeng has a record going back until at least 1994 when he was arrested for disorderly conduct. On August 31, 2012 he was arrested for harassment, trespassing, obstructing police and resisting arrest. He was eventually convicted on the trespassing charge.
Willmeng’s aggressive political tactics were on full display during the recent floods in Colorado, with him claiming massive ecological disaster related to fracking.
“All of this is the direct result of the colonization of our lands by the oil and gas industry, and a government that acts as its political arm,” Willmeng wrote recently. “But as the hydrocarbons drip into the soil, the EPA shrugs its collective shoulders, and Colorado’s floodwaters carry into Nebraska and beyond, our communities will continue to fill in where government, gas, and oil leave human health and safety behind.”
In fact, there was not a single major fracking site impacted by the flood, 9News reported. After the flood, water sampling by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment found no evidence of pollution in flood waters from oil and gas activity, leading to a number of media outlets apologizing for running with the claims of fractivists in the immediate aftermath of the flood.
Radical activists have been a mainstay of the anti-fracking movement on the Front Range. In Broomfield, fractivist Nate Pearce has been a vociferous opponent of fracking, but his previous activism may not sit well with your average Broomfield resident.
Pearce, who proudly proclaims he is a “socialist anarchist” on Facebook was a leader in the radical Occupy movement, helping organize Occupy Littleton. The Occupy movement was short-lived after citizens quickly tired of the protesters defecating on public property and the concerns about widespread rape in many Occupy protest sites nationwide.
In Loveland and Fort Collins, local activist Matthew Fredricey, a painter of psychedelic art, has been a lead organizer in Frack Free Colorado and Protect Our Loveland, testifying on behalf of fracking bans and writing numerous letters to the editor of the Loveland Reporter Herald opposing fracking. Critics, however, point to some of the rather out-of-the-mainstream views he’s expressed on social media, such as the claim that “mandatory water fluoridation is making us dumb.”
Far from your regular, run-of-the-mill concerned citizen, many of the leading fractivists occupy a much more radical fringe element than is widely known. Supporters of fracking believe that if most citizens knew who was behind many of the claims against the fracking industry, they’d be less apt to believe their claims.
But many of the claims themselves don’t hold up to scrutiny.
One of the most persistent and widespread claims made by fracking activists has been that air quality has worsened along the Front Range due to the growth of fracking operations in the last few years. The truth is that air quality has improved over the last five years in Colorado and across the nation, due in large part to the increased use of natural gas over coal to generate electricity. That growth in natural gas production and usage wouldn’t be possible without fracking.
It is these wild claims, repeated often enough without scrutiny, that opponents of the fracking bans are most concerned about. Opponents are concerned the unscrutinized claims are reaching a large audience due to the significant financial support from national environmental organizations and leaders.
One of the loudest voices making claims about the dangers and harms of fracking is Gary Wockner, the Colorado Director of the national environmental organization Clean Water Action. Wockner is a long-time environmental operative with a questionable record of activism. Recently he protested the City of Fort Collins’ decision to spray to combat the spread of West Nile Virus, which has already killed a number of Coloradans this year. Over 100 others have contracted the disease, with some leading to serious hospitalizations.
Wockner’s organization, Clean Water Action, has been heavily involved in the fracking fight in Colorado. On their website they say “together with local “fractivists” and municipalities, Clean Water Action helped win new fracking regulations and local moratorium measures, including those in Fort Collins and Boulder County.”
That help, however, has been utterly lacking in transparency due to Clean Water Action being registered with the IRS as a 501(c)4 organization that doesn’t have to disclose its spending. Although the group’s name doesn’t show up on financial disclosure forms, they’ve been heavily involved in paid canvassing efforts across the state.
On their website and Craigslist, Clean Water Action has been advertising paid canvassing jobs to “mobilize community members in priority political districts at their homes.” The gigs pay $9.25 to $11.25 hour and promise “you will learn strategic communication skills and gain knowledge about environmental issues, grassroots lobbying, and organizing and fundraising.”
Nationally, Clean Water Action has deep pockets to spend on political efforts. In 2012, the organization had revenue of $9.1 million, which it spent primarily on voter outreach and lobbying.
None of that spending has appeared on campaign finance reports for proponents of the fracking bans.
Another national environmental group with deep ties to the fractivist movement in Colorado and equally deep pockets is Food and Water Watch. A recent campaign finance filing shows they have spent about $1000 on the Fort Collins ban campaign, but that is likely far from their total investment.
In 2011, the last year a filing was available, the group brought in $11.5 million, according to Form 990 filed with the IRS. Its stated purpose is to “lobby elected officials on behalf of citizens on issues of safe food and water.”
Other deep pocketed and national groups such as 350.org and WildEarth guardians, who reported raising $2.5 million in 2012, have played a major role in the fracking fights.
This extensive web of environmental organizations with hidden financial structures has made it difficult for local journalists to pinpoint where the money for the fracking fights has been coming from. But one thing is clear – the fractivists are not lacking for funding. Or confrontation.