What’s next in Colorado’s local control over fracking debate

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]T HAS been a big week for the local control over oil and gas development debate in Colorado. No sooner did Gov. John Hickenlooper announce that negotiations for a legislative fix to the conundrum had failed, then he announced his staunch support for the industry’s perspective as they fund a battle against proposed ballot initiatives that would allow communities to limit fracking in their area.

“These measures risk literally thousands and thousands of jobs, billions in investment and millions in state and local tax revenue,” the governor announced yesterday.

Hickenlooper added that Coloradans must unite in their opposition to the measures. Industry-funded groups like Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development and Protect Colorado have already poured big and difficult-to-trace money into opposing the initiatives, with more to come.

The measures Hickenlooper was referring to are initiatives 88 and 89. A group called Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy is advocating the initiatives, which would mandate a 2,000-foot industry setback and create an “environmental bill of rights,” respectively, with funding from Boulder congressman Jared Polis.

Although Polis has said he still believes there are multiple ways to address the local control over fracking issue, Safe and Clean Energy has redoubled their efforts with an eye towards scoring the 20,000-plus signatures still needed for each initiative to put them over the threshold and onto the ballot.

The Colorado Independent’s Skyler Leonard took a trip up to the Greeley area where canvassers gathering petition signatures for the local control initiatives have recently begun their work. Before that, much of the signature-gathering push focused on the Denver-Boulder-Fort Collins corridor.

Shelia Shank, an employee of Quality Door Inc. and a supporter of oil and gas development, can see two drilling rigs dotting the horizon from her small office in downtown Windsor. Though she said she only follows politics “a little bit,” Shank has already been visited by both pro-fracking groups — at her home in Loveland — and just this week, by canvassers gathering signatures for 88 and 89.

Contrary to the concerns raised by the governor — that, for example, a statewide industry setback of 2,000 feet doesn’t constitute local control but rather a “one-size-fits-all” solution — Safe Clean Energy maintains that their ballot initiatives will strike the correct compromise on development and the right chord with voters.

“These initiatives are not a ban on fracking, they are the right balance needed for responsible energy development. It simply doesn’t belong where we live, where our food grows and where our children play,” said Safe Clean Energy spokesperson Mara Sheldon in a release yesterday.

As of yesterday, both initiatives were hovering around the 65,000 signature mark. A minimum of 86,105 valid signatures is required by Aug. 4 to put a constitutional question like 88 or 89 on the ballot. Generally speaking petitioners aim for a cushion of several thousand, and sometimes tens of thousands, signatures just to make sure enough qualify to push the measure forward.

Hickenlooper was not alone this week on the anti-initiative side of what is fast becoming not just a state, but a Democratic Party wedge issue. Also engaged in a competitive re-election race, Sen. Mark Udall, who’s being challenged by Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, announced his opposition to “blanket restrictions on energy production” this week.

“Fracking can be done safely and responsibly, and new technology has allowed us access to large sources of clean burning natural gas,” Udall asserted in a release, adding that he did not feel the initiatives struck the right balance between protecting the health and lifestyle of Colorado communities while developing the state’s energy resources.

“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. That’s the Colorado way,” Udall concluded.

Democratic lawmakers at the state capitol appear to agree that finding common ground and a legislative compromise is still the best option for Colorado.

“The issue’s not going to go away regardless of whether the initiatives pass or not,” said state representative Dicky-Lee Hullinghorst (D-Boulder). “We need a legislative solution with flexibility and all the stakeholders involved.”

Hullinghorst was deeply involved with the recently terminated negotiations seeking a special session legislative fix to head off the ballot initiatives. She said the compromise began to disintegrate as November neared and politicians at every level turned their eyes to the upcoming elections.

“As we got closer to an election it got much more political, particularly within the [state capitol] building. That’s the nature of political campaigns — to take advantage of things you think you can use to win. That was the reason, it was politics. We just couldn’t get over it,” said Hullinghorst, noting that Republicans under the dome “locked down” as the issue became more divisive.

By the end, some oil and gas interests had left the table altogether saying they’d never willingly submit to more regulation while some environmental and community groups refused to lend their buy-in to any legislation that didn’t enshrine a community’s right to pass an all-out fracking ban.

Even so, Hullinghorst says she fully intends to pursue a legislative compromise next session and that she feels the last draft of the compromise legislation from this summer will be a good place to restart the process after the election cycle. That last draft placed a heavy focus on giving local governments the power they need to manage the potential health, safety and environmental impacts of oil and gas development.


[drilling roadblock image by Erie Rising]