By Blair Koch
A Colorado group with concerns about the environmental impacts of fracking are pushing for a fundamental change to the state’s legal system to give communities greater power over corporations.
Coloradans for Community Rights has set its sights on dismantling the legal system where state laws take precedence over local rules.
This system where local authorities must fall back on state law instead of forming their own makes it nearly impossible to raise minimum wages, set environmental protections, or even strengthen tenant rights and set rent controls.
In August, CCR launched a statewide initiative: The Colorado Community Rights Amendment. The group plans to gather the necessary 99,000 signatures necessary to place the community rights amendment on the 2016 ballot. In 2014, a similar initiative was proposed but not enough signatures were collected to qualify for the ballot.
By bringing together a broad coalition of environmental, economic and social justice fighters, the CCR is optimistic its model will be successful in bringing about political and legal change.
The moves come as the Colorado Supreme Court has agreed to adjudicate in battles between community groups and fracking companies.
In early October, CCR was at the Stop the Frack Attack national summit in Denver to raise awareness about its mission.
The community rights amendment would “allow real democracy to start to happen in the country,” said CCR Member Rick Casey.
Casey explained the amendment was crucial because it puts local policymakers and local communities in control over, as the amendment states, the “competing rights, powers, privileges, immunities, or duties of corporations.”
The Colorado ballot initiative is part of the fledgling national Community Rights Movement, which works off the legal model proposed by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.
Reuters reported that 18 communities in six states have been supported by CELDF in passing community rights law.
CCR and CELDF’s work in Colorado was boosted at the Stop the Frack Attack Summit with an evening keynote speech from Pulitzer prize-winning author Chris Hedges. Hedges, along with philosopher Noam Chomsky, endorsed a similar initiative being sponsored by CELDF in Washington state calling for a Worker Bill of Rights.
Drilling takes place in Boulder County, Colorado just a few hundred feet from a small herd of Suffolk sheep. Photo courtesy of the Colorado for Community Rights Network.
But residents from Lafayette, Colorado are continuing to push. The city is the first in Colorado to pass a community Bill of Rights and its subsequent ban on fracking was challenged in court by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
Cliff Willmeng, an organizer for Coloradoans for Community Rights, told DeSmog that the court overturned the city’s ban and that the city council failed to file an appeal. Instead of giving up, a group of citizens believing that the community has a right to self-governance decided to defend its CELDF-inspired local law and filed a class action lawsuit against the State of Colorado, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and Governor John Hickenlooper.
The lawsuit requested immediate enforcement of Lafayette’s Community Rights Charter Amendment to ban fracking but a decision to hear the case by the court has not been made.
Willmeng, who is running for Lafayette City Council, presented a workshop during the Stop the Frack Attack summit on the grassroots strategy. He explained the movement is identifying current law and organizing to break it. He said:
Basically, there's a few different theories behind what we're working on. What we had to do is break apart the idea that we live in a democracy because the concept that we live in, the colonized idea we all live with, is that we live in a democracy. And because we live in a democracy we owe obedience to the government and to the law because it is operating for our own good and by our consent. If you take away the moral standing of our consent and common good we are no longer obligated to obey the law.
Community rights law passed in other parts of the country have been challenged by oil and gas interests as well. The Bradford Era reported a similar community rights measure based on the CELDF model currently being fought in Kane, Pennsylvania.
Texas-based Seneca Resources Corp. has filed a federal civil suit against the Kane township and could seek legal fees from the city if successful. In that case, Seneca, an oil and gas driller, wanted to convert a natural gas well into an injection well. However, Kane's local laws bans injection wells — leading to the lawsuit filed earlier this year.
Despite these ongoing challenges, Willmeng is undeterred. “We're taking back our democracy,” he said.
Communities across the United States are trying the CELDF model on for size as well. The Olean Times Herald reported that after JKLM Energy LLC spilled several thousand gallons of isopropanol last month people living nearby had to use alternative water sources.
In response, the Coudersport, Pennsylvania government will hear information on a Community Bill of Rights and how passing local laws may prevent such oil and gas drilling related incidents from happening in the future.
In New Hampshire, language for a state constitutional amendment was recently introduced to the legislature by Republican Representative Susan Emerson. The amendment was drafted by CELDF and introduced at the request of the New Hampshire Community Rights Network.
A prepared statement by the New Hampshire Community Rights Network says the amendment would, “guarantee the people in towns throughout New Hampshire the authority to enact local laws to protect the environment, as well as community and individual rights, free from state preemption and corporate interference.”
Emerson said the amendment would “ensure that the people directly affected by governing decisions have the last word.”
Blog image: Cliff Willmeng presents a workshop during the Stop the Frack Attack national summit. Photo: Blair Koch.