MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
How close is too close when it comes to oil and gas drilling? Well, next month, voters in Colorado will get to weigh in on that. A statewide ballot measure would keep new wells farther away from homes and schools. The industry says that would threaten its very existence. Grace Hood of Colorado Public Radio and NPR's energy and environment team has more.
GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: Therese Gilbert is a mom and a seventh grade teacher in Greeley, the epicenter of Colorado's oil and gas industry. She's also an activist on a mission.
THERESE GILBERT: This is my little petition bag.
HOOD: Gilbert volunteers for the group Colorado Rising. It wants to increase the distance between wells and homes from 500 to 2,500 feet. That would be the biggest statewide setback requirement in the country. Today, Gilbert uses her little bag to turn out voters. In this purple county, Gilbert approaches 31-year-old Democratic voter Susana Ruiz on the ground-floor patio of her small apartment.
GILBERT: Because when things blow up, especially if you're putting 24 wells by a school, the kids are going to get hurt.
HOOD: And some Colorado wells have exploded and burned. In 2017, an oil tank fire killed one worker and injured three. A home explosion in Firestone linked to an oil well killed two people and severely injured one. Gilbert gets a more positive response from women. Ruiz likes the idea of more distance between new wells and her kids.
SUSANA RUIZ: I mean, if this is going to keep them away from their schools and stuff like that, I mean, obviously I would want my children safe, so...
HOOD: But supporters of these oil and gas setbacks are being dramatically outspent. The oil and gas industry has raised more than $30 million this year to stop the measure.
KAREN CRUMMY: Our job and our task is really to educate as many voters as we can.
HOOD: Karen Crummy is a spokesperson for Protect Colorado, a political issue group that opposes the setbacks. The group spent millions last month on ad buys, political signs and consulting services. You see specific messaging for Latinos and women, like this ad voiced by a mom who lives in oil-rich Weld County.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: My kids have grown up with two things - the benefits of natural gas and oil and great schools. The two go hand-in-hand. Join me in voting no on 112.
HOOD: Crummy says Colorado energy companies provide hundreds of millions in tax dollars that can pay for schools, roads and bridges. And companies in the state already face some of the strictest regulations in the country.
CRUMMY: And what this initiative would do because it's so extreme would be essentially to wipe out the industry.
HOOD: Colorado regulators found that increasing the distance between wells and homes could put as much as 85 percent of private and state land off-limits for new wells. But that number may be high. One Colorado School of Mines researcher found that companies could still access oil and gas by drilling horizontally underneath homes and schools.
In Loveland, Therese Gilbert is not scared off by a yard sign that says jobs matter; vote no. At the door, she finds Jeff Van Horn, who surveys potential drilling sites for a living.
JEFF VAN HORN: We're...
VAN HORN: ...Certainly worried about it. And people are - been talking. That's where I got my sign. It's from work (laughter).
GILBERT: Then so what if this were to pass? What would you do? I'm just curious. Like, what do you think?
VAN HORN: Well, certainly I would lose hours.
VAN HORN: OK, and the clientele would shrink.
VAN HORN: So the competition would be higher.
GILBERT: Do you have other - another skill set besides surveying that you would...
VAN HORN: Well, yeah, playing bass, but it doesn't pay very much.
GILBERT: No, it doesn't pay.
HOOD: And with that, Therese Gilbert moves on to find a voter who hasn't yet made up their mind. For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood.
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