Hickenlooper still hoping to avert local-control ballot initiatives with compromise drilling bill

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May 9, 2014, 10:41 am
Oil drilling

As oil and gas drilling are reaching all-time highs in Colorado, drilling is occurring closer to schools and residential neighborhoods, like this one in Fort Collins. Photo by David O. Williams.

There’s still a glimmer of hope for Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration that a compromise can be reached between grassroots activists, environmentalists, divided lawmakers and oil and gas industry representatives and that a bill can be forged to provide greater control over drilling practices for local governments.

“There are still several issues that both sides are stuck on,” Hickenlooper reportedly said at his annual post-session news conference on Thursday. “I do feel that the longer people stay at the table … both sides generally become a little more flexible and a little more open to compromise.”

A compromise bill, which would require a special session of the Colorado Legislature, could potentially head off a slew of local-control citizen ballot initiatives, at least a few of which are likely to wind up being voted on statewide in November.

Hickenlooper has steadfastly maintained that state law trumps local control when it comes to drilling policies such as setbacks from schools and homes. The state has sued cities that have imposed hydraulic fracturing bans, and Hickenlooper — a former oil and gas industry geologist — is clearly torn by the split-estate regulatory framework that allows for separate ownership of mineral rights beneath private property.

But Boulder Democratic Congressman Jared Polis, whose own Front Range property was impacted by drilling, won’t back down on his deep-pocketed support of several of the local-control ballot initiatives.

The failure of state legislators to craft a compromise bill in the waning days of the legislative session that ended Wednesday has Polis all the more determined to let the voters decide what some in the business community are dubbing a statewide fracking ban, even though such bans would be left up to individual towns and counties.

“My constituents and all Coloradans simply want the freedom to live their version of the Colorado dream without interference,” Polis said in a press release Monday. “Unfortunately, the current law takes away our ability to choose what is best for our communities and families by forcing fracking to happen anywhere, anytime.

“The people of Colorado are demanding a reasonable balance between energy development and their quality of life. I will not stop fighting for a solution that does just that.”

A recent Politico story headlined “How fracking could break Colorado Democrats” airs their concerns that such measures will attract a flood of industry and Republican campaign dollars that could help defeat Democratic Gov. Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall in November.

Hickenlooper has been a strong proponent of the current system of state control over oil and gas drilling by the Colorado Oil Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), arguing for the overall safety of hydraulic fracturing, which is a drilling process that injects water, sand and chemicals deep underground to fracture tight rock and sand formations to free up more oil and gas.

“This is a complex issue that involves many different stakeholders,” Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown told Rocky Mountain Post Monday. “The governor has insisted on broad engagement done in a bipartisan way. We know now that there is not enough time left in the legislative session to reach a compromise about issues related to local control. We have been working hard on this issue – including many hours over this past weekend – and will continue working hard on this issue.”

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group, was not directly involved in negotiations but encouraged its stakeholders to participate in the process.

“At the end of the day, a bill such as this needed to be bi-partisan, with broad industry and stakeholder support,” COGA spokesman Doug Flanders told Rocky Mountain Post. “Bills or ballot measures that change how oil and gas is governed will have dramatic impacts to every sector of the economy. This is why we are seeing business groups coming together to fight against these kinds of ballot measures.”

State Reps. Su Ryden, D-Aurora, and Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, were spearheading the 11th-hour negotiations for a local-control bill, which included representatives of the Hickenlooper administration. Ryden and Hullinghorst on Monday issued a joint statement that reads in part:

“Those discussions focused on harmonizing local and state authority in regards to energy production. It is of critical importance to people across this state to balance local communities’ ability to act to protect the health, safety and welfare of Colorado families while also creating a consistent and predictable regulatory framework that allows for responsible energy development.

“Our conversations have been productive, but we haven’t yet struck an accord with all of the stakeholders, and we’ve run out of time in this session to pass consensus legislation.”

Campaign representatives for both Udall and his Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, did not respond to email requests for comment.

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David O. Williams
David O. Williams is an award-winning energy, environmental, political, entertainment, outdoor and sports writer based in the Vail Valley. His work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, LA Weekly, ESPN.com, SKI Magazine, Powder and People Magazine. He also regularly contributes to The Colorado Statesman and Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com.

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