DENVER – A radical environmental campaigner with an extensive arrest record dating back to the 1990’s is behind a far-reaching plan to let local governments ban hydraulic fracturing – or any other “corporate project” – within their borders.
The proposal is the brainchild of Cliff Willmeng, whose lengthy criminal record includes arrests for harassment, trespassing, obstructing police and resisting arrest; and whose public statements have often echoed those of the militant, left-wing “Occupy” movement.
“The measure would address any type of corporate project that a local community would deem to be a threat,” Willmeng told the Boulder Daily Camera, adding that he is seeking to do away with the “rights, powers and duties of for-profit business entities.”
Innocuously named groups like Willmeng’s “Colorado Community Rights Network,” are often utilized as part of a broader national effort funded by left-wing groups to dramatically curtail conventional energy development. In Colorado, that effort has manifested itself in the form of efforts to impose local bans on fracking — such as those passed in Longmont and Fort Collins, and in a high profile recruiting effort by politically liberal groups like MoveOn.org.
The outcome of another proposed ban in Broomfield remains in doubt thanks to widespread election irregularities.
Under Colorado’s split-estate law, the owner of sub-surface mineral and energy deposits may not be the same as the person who owns the surface of the property. That has prompted critics to argue that local bans on development revoke the property rights guaranteed to sub-surface property owners by state law – effectively preventing them from accessing the underground resources they own.
For those reasons, opponents of the patchwork bans have argued that such policy decisions are, and ought to remain, primarily the purview of state regulators – and they have challenged the legality of the locally imposed bans backed by Green Lobby groups like Willmeng’s.
But Willmeng’s public statements suggest that he has little interest in the legal and constitutional issues surrounding the split estate question — or the implications of the sweeping proposal.
Sounding a tone reminiscent of the anti-capitalist Hollywood film magnate Michael Moore, Willmeng has denounced legal challenges to bans on fracking as “corporate lawsuits,” and he has hinted at civil disobedience if the courts rule in favor of mineral owners.
“[W]e are prepared for all outcomes, and in the event the courts find that communities are subordinate to corporations, the courts will at that moment lose democratic legitimacy and the right to rule the people,” Willmeng said in a December statement.
“The movement for democracy, human health, and environmental sustainability will not honor any court, judge, or corporate claim that places human safety and collective authority subordinate to the interests of the wealthy few,” the statement added.
That kind of ideologically charged rhetoric suggests a more aggressive strategy than the one employed by traditional mainstream conservation groups — with activists like Willmeng seemingly prioritizing conflict and protest over consensus, a point the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s Doug Flanders touched on in response to a question from TCO.
“Confrontation is easy – however, successful collaboration takes effort and diligence,” said Doug Flanders, a spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “We are fortunate that most Coloradans take responsibility for their energy use and engage in civil and practical dialogue about the trade-offs required in the responsible development of all energy resources.”
“By not engaging in a real dialogue and keeping with extreme positions, these activists dismiss the Colorado workers and their families who are supported by oil and gas industry and any other business in Colorado they deem are not worthy of their support,” added Flanders.
Jon Haubert of Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development struck a similar tone, adding that the Willmeng Plan could impact thousands of people’s livelihoods.
“In Colorado, we don’t ban entire sectors of the economy and take away tens of thousands of people’s jobs just to make a political point. We work through our differences by talking to one another and finding common ground,” said Haubert.
“With this ballot initiative, they are threatening all businesses and all jobs across the economy, just when Colorado families are trying to put the recession behind them,” Haubert added.
Flanders too, warned that proposals like Willmeng’s could put large sectors of the economy — and not just the state’s oil and gas fields — at risk.
“These radical ban proposals will have implications beyond oil and gas development but to all companies and businesses in the State,” said Flanders. “We should all agree that citizens concerned about the welfare of the State of Colorado will reject these broad business bans out of hand.”
Willmeng says he plans to submit finalized proposal language later this week. If the language is approved, Willmeng would have to gather more than 86,000 signatures from registered Colorado voters to place the question on the November ballot.