James Madison once wrote that what differentiated the government of the United States from that of previous iterations “[lied] in the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity.” Madison, perhaps our most crucial Constitutional progenitor, was apprehensive about the public’s ability to properly judge and vote on all the nation’s laws.
No current Colorado ballot initiative is more emblematic of this than Proposition 112. The Minimum Distance Requirements for New Oil, Gas, and Fracking Projects Initiative requires that all new oil and gas wells developed in Colorado be at least 2,500 feet away from all buildings and protected areas. It is one of the most complex ballot initiatives Colorado has ever asked its residents to vote on.
The change in distance is a stark increase compared to the old limits of 500 feet for homes and 1,000 feet for schools and businesses. The proposed distance, if passed, would also be the longest restriction adopted by any state in the nation.
Proponents of the bill argue that the increased distance is needed to protect the health and safety of Colorado residents. Opponents claim that the length is indicative of moral posturing and not scientific consensus. Further, they contend that the restriction would cripple the state’s oil and gas industry. The path forward seems simple — one must only assess the validity of the for-groups health concerns and the against-groups economics consternations to decide how to vote. Unfortunately, brevity is not indicative of simplicity.
These are just a few competing and yet wholly plausible arguments of the current predicament with 112. The Colorado School of Public Health observed that the current limit of 500 feet increases the lifetime excess cancer risk of an individual to more than eight times above current EPA limits. However, the Colorado Health Department found little evidence of increased cancer risk or health harms from living near oil and gas developments. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation argues that the restriction would make 85% of surface land unavailable for future development; one of Colorado School of Mines’ economics professors, Peter Maniloff, found that only 58% of the state’s subsurface would be off limits. Opponents of the proposition argue that it will kill 43,000 jobs in the first year and 150,000 by 2030; proponents argue back that the oil and gas industry only makes up one percent of the states entire workforce and that the perturbations about job-loss are a scare tactic.
Opponents argue that the proposition could result in financial losses for the state of between $7 billion and $470 billion (representative of the uncertainty in all of this), while proponents argue that over 50,000 wells would remain active in the state even if the law was past and that Colorado should be moving towards renewables anyway.
Who is right? For many of these points of contention, I am not so sure. Treading into this abyss of uncertainty, the answer of what is right and wrong no longer seems so apparent. A perfectly reasonable and rational person could land on either side of this debate. In light of this gray area, a precautionary principle is an honest place to start. This implies that in times of unpredictability we as voters should err on the side that protects individual welfare and health: the Vote Yes campaign. But this principle, if extended too far, could justify nearly anything; there is always some uncertainty. Therefore, we need to take due diligence in our decision making and decide if the proposition strikes an appropriate balance between health and safety concerns and economic diminution.
For me, the balance is wrong — I will be voting no on proposition 112. This is not to argue that you should vote with me. You need to decide how you will vote by studying the facts. The sociological, economic, and scientific claims that revolve around 112 are too complex to ever come to a clear-cut answer. For most people, this means that bad-faith, preconceived notions, and cognitive dissonance will be the primary means by which they decide. Do not fall into this trap. We all need to take the time to understand the facts around the case, to prod them and see if they are baseless, and to weigh them and see where the right balance is. This is a balance only you can find, but one you need to take the time to locate. For all of our sakes, I hope James Madison was wrong.