Hickenlooper lands crucial compromise in fracking debate

DENVER — After months of thorny, stop-and-start negotiations that in recent weeks seemed doomed to fail, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper announced today that he had succeeded in wringing a truce out of dueling big-money backers of ballot initiative proposals concerning local control over oil and gas development in the state.

The announcement was met with great celebration and relief in Denver but for hours it was unclear exactly what it would mean come Election Day in November. The deal after all had arrived late on this year’s midterm elections calendar.

Peeling the money out of the political battle would have drained it of energy, cut back on ground-game campaigns over the next few months and uncloged airwaves already brimming with ads for and against the proposals. So proponents of the initiatives, who had already submitted more than enough signatures to land their proposals on state ballots, decided after some delay beyond the announcement today to halt their efforts to win over voters to their cause.

The Denver Post reported at roughly 8 p.m. Monday that proponents of all four dueling initiatives would withdraw them.

“We are celebrating our victory and withdrawing [Initiative] 121,” initiative co-sponsor Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, told the Post.

“We are pleased an agreement could be reached and that we can balance protections for Colorado families with responsible energy development,” said Mara Sheldon, spokesperson for Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, the group behind environmental and local control initiatives 88 and 89. Her group plans to withdraw its initiatives Tuesday.

Blue ribbon commission

The deal centers on the establishment of an 18-member blue-ribbon commission that will include representatives of the the drilling and construction industries, the agricultural community, conservationists and local government officials and civic leaders. The commission will make recommendations to the state legislature, which plans to work on a measure to address the next session, which begins in January.

The commission will be chaired by Gwen Lacelt, the La Plata County commissioner, and Randy Cleveland, the president of XTO Energy.

“The work of this task force will provide an alternative to ballot initiatives that, if successful, would have regulated the oil and gas industry through the rigidity of constitutional amendments and posed a significant threat to Colorado’s economy,” Hickenlooper announced in a conference at the state capital today.

State House Majority Leader Dicky Lee Hullinghorst, a Democrat from Boulder where hydraulic fracturing activity has expanded dramatically in recent years drawing great citizen push-back, worked intensely with Hickenlooper over the last two months on the compromise. She lauded the deal announced today as the best way to head off a bitter and expensive battle at the polls.

Lawsuit questions and good feelings

Hickenlooper also said that as part of the deal he would drop the state lawsuit against the town of Longmont, just northwest of Boulder. Longmont has led in the fight for local control over drilling. Residents have passed laws creating stricter zoning regulations and a city-wide ban on fracking. The deal would see the state suit aimed at lifting the regulations dropped. It will be up the Colorado Oil and Gas Association to drop the lawsuit seeking to lift the fracking ban.

The Association lauded the deal in a release today but didn’t say whether it will drop its lawsuit.

Hickenlooper, who had seemed at a loss for weeks as parties to negotiations battled in the media and seemed to grow increasingly rigid in their positions, drew a hearty round of compliments for his persistence.

“By putting the state’s interests ahead of politics, the governor has a cleared a path for conversation and understanding, rather than fighting through talking points,” said Tisha Schuller, COGA president and CEO.

Pete Mason, executive director of Conservation Colorado, roughly agreed, thanking Hickenlooper for dropping the lawsuit against Longmont, which he called “a significant step forward.”

Wealthy Boulder Congressman Jared Polis, the primary funder behind ballot initiatives 88 and 89, which aims to increase the power of local authorities to regulate oil and gas drilling in their communities, stood beside Hickenlooper at the announcement today.

“My own personal preference has always been to address these issues legislatively,” Polis said.

Polis dodged questions about whether Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, the issue committee pushing the initiatives he’d just agreed not to fund, would actually drop their fight.

A deal but not yet an end

Indeed, the compromise centered on the deal brokered between Polis and major Colorado drilling companies Noble Energy and Anadarko.

The grassroots activists who have spent months gathering signatures may be a little slower to come on board.

Immediately after the press conference at the capitol, state Representative Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said he had no plans to pull his Initiative 121 and that no one had asked him to pull it. His initiative, proposed together with Rep. McNulty and backed by oil and gas companies, targeted cities and towns that have passed fracking bans by barring them from receiving tax revenue generated by oil-and-gas development elsewhere in the state. Sonnenberg said he hadn’t talked to anyone involved in the deal.

He and McNulty turned in just more than 130,000 signatures in support of the initiative this morning. Sonnenberg said he handed them in and was on his way back to his farm.

Roughly 86,000 valid signatures are required to land a measure on the ballot.

According to the state election calendar, the Secretary of State would have had to certify signatures by September 3rd and then the proponents would have had to decide whether or not to go forward with their efforts by September 23, when ballots and the blue books explaining the ballot to voters, will be finalized county to county. In the end, they agreed — Sonnenberg and McNulty and Pat Hamill, president of Oakwood Homes and chairman of Colorado Concern, the group behind Initiative 137, on one side and Polis on the other– to pull all four competing ballot initiatives today.

Sonnenberg said his proposal was about fairness, arguing that communities that don’t have to spend money to mitigate the impacts of oil and gas development because they’ve banned or curtailed it, shouldn’t get the tax money designed for that purpose.

“My initiative is not part of the conversation as I understand it. Nobody is talking to me… I haven’t been part of negotiations either from the oil-and-gas side or from Jared Polis’s side,” he told The Independent this afternoon.

“I’d assume that if you have a compromise involving my ballot initiative that I’d be part of the conversation. I haven’t been, so I assume it doesn’t hinge on that,” he added.

For a stretch of hours, it looked like the state could witness a standoff. The Polis group, Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, released a statement clarifying that they too planned on moving ahead with their initiatives unless Sonnenberg and McNulty backed down.

“We would be happy to meet with our opponents at the Secretary of State’s office to mutually withdraw all four initiatives at an agreed upon time,” said spokeswoman Sheldon on Monday.

Still, gas-patch grassroots activists are having none of the compromise.

“Any compromise spoken about in relation to this deal should appear in quotes,” said Sam Schabacker, director of Food and Water Watch in Colorado. “From what I’ve heard so far, this is a hollow compromise that does nothing to truly protect the hundreds of thousands of citizens concerned about the risks posed to their health and property by oil-and-gas development.

Edit note: This story was updated at 9:00 pm to include statements from initiative proponents saying they had agreed to withdraw their proposals.

[ Capitol photo by Tessa Cheek. ]


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