Energy firms pour $20 million into defeating Colorado drilling curbs

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Oil and gas companies and their supporters have poured $20.3 million since August into a campaign to defeat a Colorado ballot initiative that would limit new drilling in populated areas, according to state financial filings released on Tuesday.

Slideshow ( 2 images )

Colorado, the sixth largest and one of the fastest growing U.S. oil-producing states, votes on Nov. 6 on a citizens’ petition that would require new wells be at least 2,500 feet (762 m) from homes, schools and parks.

The initiative, which received 172,834 signatures to get a spot on the ballot, was aided in part by the deaths of two men last year in an explosion caused by gas leaking from an abandoned well near a home in Firestone, Colorado.

The state’s oil production rose 26 percent in the 12 months through July as companies used higher prices to expand in the state’s Denver-Julesberg basin.

Oil and gas companies with operations in the state, including Anadarko Petroleum Corp, DCP Midstream LP and Noble Energy Inc, have donated more than $1 million each to Protect Colorado, a group fighting the citizens’ initiative.

Anadarko did not respond to a request for comment, and Noble was immediately available to discuss contributions. DCP Midstream referred questions to Protect Colorado.

The group still has more than $10.2 million in financial and service contributions available to fight the measure with just weeks to go before the vote, according to state filings.

A Protect Colorado spokeswoman said the financing - more than 100 times that raised by initiative backers - is no guarantee of victory.

“It’s really going to depend on voter turnout,” said Karen Crummy, a spokeswoman for the group. “Most people assume this November will have a high turnout, no matter where you are.”

Colorado Rising, which led the signature-gathering effort to get the measure on the ballot, currently has about $100,000 and has recruited about 2,000 volunteers to conduct pro-initiative phone calls and text messages, and to canvas neighborhoods, according to Anne Lee Foster, a spokeswoman for the group.

“We’ve seen many times where the industry has outspent communities and we’ve still won at the ballot box,” Foster said.

Americans for Prosperity, a political advocacy group backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch, also has joined the opposition. Its Colorado chapter is planning a digital campaign to communicate directly with voters, state director Jesse Mallory said in an interview.

Opponents say the set-back restrictions would curtail some 85 percent of new oil and gas development and harm the state’s economy. Colorado mayors and other elected officials have called for a “no” vote.

“There are better ways to protect the health and safety of our communities while keeping our state’s economy strong,” said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.

Reporting by Liz Hampton; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Leslie Adler