Today is the first day of July, the date’s number 1 blinking like a warning-light exclamation point on the phone and computer screens of Colorado’s top state officials. The date signals that opportunity this election year is shrinking for the governor and legislative leaders to reach an agreement on a bill that could head off a series of ballot measures aimed at granting local authorities greater regulatory control over the oil-and-gas industry.
As sources close to the negotiations kept telling The Colorado Independent in May and June, political and legal milestones would begin to pile up in July that would make striking a deal on the complex issue even more difficult than it has been. Now July has arrived without a deal and events may be overtaking negotiations.
Yesterday, the Colorado Supreme Court gave the green light to five ballot meausures — four local control measures and one so-called environmental bill of rights. They’re part of a package of seven initiatives fueling the race to pass a bill in a special legislative session that the governor has said he won’t convene until parties agree to a deal that lawmakers agree to pass. Monday’s court ruling advances the march of the initiative process even as talks in Denver have stalled.
Nick Passanante, campaign director for Safe Clean Colorado, the issue committee promoting the seven initiatives, told the Independent that his group is moving ahead aggressively with the signature campaigns required to land the initiatives on state ballots. The group must collect 86,105 signatures by August 4th.
“We are out and running on Amendments 88 and 89,” Passanante said, referring to two initiatives authored by the group and approved in May. “As of last Thursday, we were at just over 15,000 signatures… It was our first week.”
Passanante says his group is now more fully staffed than it was last week and he expects to gather 25,000 to 30,000 more signatures this week.
“We will run the campaign at full throttle up until the point that the legislature passes something acceptable,” he wrote in an email. “We are fully prepared to take these measures to the ballot in November and are confident we have the path to victory at the ballot box.”
Safe Clean Colorado is bankrolled by wealthy Second District Congressman Jared Polis, who represents four of the five northern Front Range cities that have voted in recent elections for bans and moratoriums on fracking — the controversial extraction process where millions of gallons of water and sand and chemicals are blasted into the earth to break up rock formations and bring oil and gas to the surface.
Over the last half-decade as horizontal drilling technology has made fracking more effective, boom-time operations in the region have crept into the centers of cities and suburbs. Companies have set up well pads and drilling towers next to schools, playgrounds and flood-prone rivers and streams. Truck traffic has overrun neighborhood streets.
Sundance Energy workers last summer set up a drill tower across from Polis’s home in Weld County. Polis lodged a complaint with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which found that Sundance had drilled one of its wells too close to a home on the lot. The commission slapped the company with a $26,000 fine.
But Polis, like many of his constituents, has found state regulations inadequate and lawmakers tentative in the face of the powerful drilling industry. His ballot initiatives were among a host of similar measures introduced by citizens in the state this year, but Polis’s measures caught the attention of the drilling industry and of lawmakers because they came with a promise of well-funded signature-gathering and advertising campaigns that even successful gas-patch grassroots efforts have so far lacked. Mainly, the measures would grant local authorities power to establish larger set-backs or frack-free zones around occupied buildings.
Polis has said that, if lawmakers pass a bill granting local authorities real power to shape industry activity, he will pull his initiatives.
Cash put aside to win over public opinion for and against the measures is already on course to hit well more than $10 million.
Hickenlooper has been wrestling with representatives of Polis and of the drilling and homebuilding industries, looking to win support for a draft bill that has gone through several iterations since May. Hickenlooper argues that regulating drilling is complex and that a simple yes or no ballot question will likely spur years of court battles. That argument has been persuasive for the parties at the table. But as weeks tick down toward Election Day, differing positions on the details of the most recent public version of the bill appear to have grown intractable.
Oil and gas companies remain split on the deal. Noble Energy and Anadarko Petroleum Company are reportedly leading arguments in favor of the bill. Many of the other oil and gas companies working in the state feel left out of negotiations.
“Negotiations? What negotiations?” said Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Petroleum Association, which represents major national companies with longtime presence in Colorado, like British Petroleum, Chevron and Conoco Phillips. “There aren’t any negotiations — at least not that include our members,” he said. “The bill they’re looking at was written by the governor, Jared Polis and a few companies at the table. It’s a ‘take it or leave it’ approach.
“We’re certainly letting lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — know that we oppose the bill.”
Nineteen of the companies represented by Dempsey’s association signed a letter sent to the governor on Friday expressing their opposition to any more regulations on drilling.
“Fundamentally, there is no reason to support legislation that would push towards more regulations on the oil and gas industry,” reads the letter. “As you have stated numerous times, Colorado has the strongest oil and gas regulations in the nation. No other industry has undergone continuous major rulemakings since 2006… These public rulemakings have included numerous stakeholders from local governments to agriculture interests… We believe that future changes to Colorado’s oil and gas regulatory framework should be considered through an open and transparent process that involves all stakeholders.”
Local control activists in the Front Range gas patch have been similarly critical of Hickenlooper’s efforts, which they say are undemocratic and will undercut advances the movement has made on the ground. They agree with the Petroleum Association that the process lacks transparency and that key players have been left out of the talks. They say the governor has yet to invite representatives of the people on the ground who over years have lead the movement to pause drilling activity in residential areas and to commission more research on possible health and safety risks tied to fracking. They say they’ll continue fighting for more control no matter what happens in Denver.
“Communities across Colorado have spoken loudly and clearly that we want to protect the health, safety, and vitality of our communities by not allowing them to be opened up to fracking,” said Laura Fronckiewicz, president of Our Broomfield, a group that led a successful effort to pass a moratorium on fracking in that city last November. “It is outrageous that legislation is being considered that would undermine this ability. We stand with communities across Colorado in calling on Governor Hickenlooper and the state legislature to reject any legislation that will undermine local control.”
[ Boardroom photo by Eric Dan. ]