Local control bill in the can, politicians scramble on fracking


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE deal was up. The deal was down. The deal sat for weeks as lawmakers, lobbyists, environmental watchdogs and oil and gas executives postponed summer vacations in the increasingly unlikely case of a special legislative session on local control of drilling.

Now the deal is dead, leaving oil and gas advocates and so-called “fracktivists” and environmental groups more divided on the issue than ever while politicians struggle to navigate an increasingly complex political landscape.

With Democrats such as Sen. Mark Udall and Gov. John Hickenlooper up for re-election against capable Republican candidates, the issue of local control over oil and gas drilling comes at a time when mobilized Republican voters could possibly tip the scale against them. Just today, poll results put Hickenlooper one percent behind Republican challenger Bob Beauprez.

“Kudos to Gov. Hickenlooper and Congressman Polis for trying to pry some reasonable compromises from the out-of-state fracking interests. But alas, the best laid plans of mice and men go aft awry,” said Doug Phelps, president of Colorado Public Interest Network. Phelps was among those who were closely watching the efforts toward a special session.

Without a legislative solution, expensive and controversial ballot initiatives on oil and gas drilling are almost unavoidable on November’s ballot. While a measure that would have given citizens the power to limit the rights of oil and gas developers has already been pulled due to lack of support, two more fracking initiatives, funded mainly by Boulder Congressman Jared Polis, are still in the pipes. The first, Initiative 88, would mandate that oil and gas rigs to be at least 2,000 feet away from occupied structures. The second, Initiative 89, would add an environmental bill of rights to the Colorado Constitution.

“Although we will not be calling a special session on oil and gas local control legislation, we will continue to work on the underlying issue, building on progress made,” Hickenlooper said in a release today announcing the termination of negotiations on the bill intended to head-off the ballot initiatives.

Republicans are already moving to characterize the failure of the legislative compromise as a failure for Hickenlooper and Colorado Democrats.

“[M]any of the key insiders clamoring for the special session were partisan liberals more interested in saving Democratic political hides than making good public policy,” said state Rep. Frank McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch) in a release today.

In the midst of one of the nation’s tightest congressional races, Udall was quick to clarify his stance on the initiatives, which are fast becoming a wedge issue in the 2014 election cycle.

“I believe that Colorado can and must do better, which is why I oppose these one-size-fits-all restrictions and will continue working with all parties — including property owners, energy producers, and lawmakers — to find common ground,” Udall said.

That common ground may be more difficult to find than ever. If parties were conflicted over Hickenlooper’s legislative compromise, they are almost irrevocably divided on the ballot initiatives.

Powerful grassroots conservation groups like Food and Water Watch say they opposed the proposed legislative fracking compromise because it would have prohibited cities and counties from passing local bans or moratoriums on drilling activity.

“Communities across Colorado have called for ban or moratorium on fracking and five out of six were successful in doing so. They have every right to protect their homes, environment and community from this harmful industrial activity,” said Lisa Trope at Food and Water Watch Colorado, adding that her organization won’t actively support the initiative to up drilling setbacks from 500 feet to 2,000 feet because the measure doesn’t ensure a community’s right to pass an out-right fracking ban.

On the other side of the table, the Colorado Oil & Gas Association — which opposed some versions of the proposed legislative compromise — has more or less vowed to fight the initiatives with everything they’ve got.

“For all of us that use energy, are excited about energy independence, and are willing to take responsibility for our collective energy and environmental future, these ballot initiatives are an absurd game of roulette,” said Tisha Schuller, the President of COGA.

The ballot measures are also staunchly opposed by energy companies such as Noble Energy and Anadarko, who were in favor of the legislative compromise that was reached with their cooperation.

In a joint press release from energy companies including Noble and Anadarko, the industry stated, “We are fully committed to informing Colorado voters on the need to defeat these destructive ballot measures.  We believe Colorado voters, when given the facts, will understand the impacts of these ill-conceived ballot proposals and will vote against them.”

While oil and gas organizations gear-up for what will likely be an expensive fight against the “anti-fracking” ballot initiatives, conservation and community rights groups are busily gathering signatures to get the questions before voters in November.

Mara Sheldon from Safe Clean Colorado, the group backing the initiatives, said, “Things are going great,” with the signature drive. The group must receive 86,105 signatures before August 4th to qualify for the November ballot. Sheldon said her group will announce exact signature numbers on Thursday.

Safe Clean Colorado is funded by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Boulder) who represents four of the five Front Range towns that have banned or placed moratoriums on fracking. For those looking to block the initiatives before they make it to the ballot, Polis — and his deep pockets — is the primary focus. But so far Polis seems as committed as ever to the initiatives despite accusations from within his own party that they are politically divisive in a close election year.

“Now, as it has become clear that the path to passing a legislative compromise has been obstructed, we must turn to the people of Colorado to solve this problem,” Polis said in a statement released today.

But even if Polis does an about-face, choosing to pull funding for the initiatives at the urging of fellow Democrats, grassroots activists behind the measure say the issue isn’t just political for Coloradans and it isn’t going away anytime soon.

“The most important thing to do, regardless of any special session, regardless of the ballot questions or any particular decision point, is to continue to educate the public about the dangers of this dirty drilling boom — for people to get the facts and for communities to have the tools they need to fight back,” said John Rumpler of Environment America, who was in Washington D.C. today briefing congressional staffers about fracking local control actions across the country.

“One way or another we need to keep organizing, keep educating and keep listening to the public’s concerns. And that’s exactly what we intend to do.”


[Colorado anti-fracking protest image by Erie Rising]

update note: The original version of this story was updated to more accurately reflect Rumpler’s presentation in Washington D.C. today during which he briefed congressional staffers from many states about localized community responses to oil and gas development. 


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