During their first televised debate, former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy, ex-state Sen. Mike Johnston, and current Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne drilled down on whether and how to further regulate fracking in Colorado. And the answers weren’t entirely expected.
The three are running in a Democratic primary in a state where a fracking and housing boom collides and whose current Democratic governor is often accused by some on the left of being too cozy with the oil-and-gas industry. Also of note: Colorado Democrats went for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton by 20 points in the 2016 caucuses here. Sanders wanted to ban fracking.
KUSA 9News moderators Kyle Clark and Brandon Rittiman asked questions that largely revolved around how much local control cities and towns should have when it comes to keeping wells away from homes and schools. In Colorado, local voters in municipalities have voted to ban fracking in their jurisdictions altogether, but the state Supreme Court has ruled they do not have the power to do that.
In recent years, legislative bills that would have spelled out drilling setbacks from houses and schools have failed. So local governments have tried to come up with their own ways to deal with drillers. In Broomfield, for instance, voters in November passed a local measure that gives them more authority over potential oil-and-gas operations by putting into the city charter a provision that requires protection of health, safety and the environment as a precondition for drilling operations within Broomfield’s city limits.
During Wednesday evening’s debate, Lynne was less forceful than Johnston and Kennedy about creating laws distancing drilling from schools or houses, and she insisted, in a way the others did not, that public health and safety is already a priority in the state when it comes to energy development. Johnston was the only candidate who said he wanted state laws for so-called setbacks, and Kennedy said if she were governor she would have done more than the current governor to stop a pending appeal of a court ruling that says the state’s regulatory body must put public health and safety first.
That body, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, is made up of a governor-appointed panel of nine commissioners that is funded largely by the oil-and-gas industry. Its stated mission suggests a balancing act between public health, the environment, and oil-and-gas development. “We are as committed to protecting public health and the environment as we are to fostering the responsible development of Colorado’s oil and gas resources,” reads the COGCC’s mission in part.
But a Colorado Court of Appeals decision says the agency’s mission should be to put health and safety first. That ruling was appealed in May of last year by Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a staunch defender of oil-and-gas companies. Coffman, who is also running for governor, has referenced her appeal during her campaign, saying that no other candidate has “stepped up and done more on behalf of the oil and gas industry than I have as attorney general.” Hickenlooper said he did not want to appeal the decision, but did not challenge Coffman.
All this was the backdrop to the candidates’ answers during a debate at the Lakewood Cultural Center Wednesday night.
From the stage, Johnston, a former state senator who represented Denver and is a national figure in the education reform movement, said he would like to see statewide setback rules so communities don’t negotiate against each other “to win a race to the bottom.” Communities should have input on oil-and-gas development in their areas, he said, and be able to advise through zoning.
“I think we have to push back setbacks, we have to make sure we cap these thousands of orphan wells that could be leaking oil and gas into our homes,” he said.
Asked if local voters pass a measure about oil-and-gas drilling whether the state should overrule it, Johnston said it depends on the measure. He said municipalities should be able to put in work time, place, and use restrictions. He said under the Supreme Court ruling voters can’t ban access to minerals “because folks have a right to those.”
“I think what we don’t want is a system where it’s just about who has the most political power that gets the rig moved down the road. If you go to Greeley right now and talk to the families of Bella Romero Elementary they were going to place a rig on the west side of Greeley, those folks got really loud and complained so they moved it over to one of the lowest-income elementaries in the city. I think if you have a system where folks are just forum shopping to go after who has the least political power that will not serve all of Colorado’s communities so you have to have a statewide set of rules.”
Kennedy, a former state treasurer who also served as deputy mayor of Denver, said she believes local jurisdictions in Colorado should have “more of a voice” in the process and should have more of an ability to “look at water quality issues, air quality issues, noise, [and the] lighting that comes with these.” Local communities, she said, “have the power to regulate other industrial operations and we need to give them more autonomy.”
But Kennedy said cities and towns should not be allowed to ban fracking outright at the local level.
“I don’t think we should ban the industry in this state, I don’t support shutting it down,” she said. “I do believe that we need a regulatory environment that protects public health, safety and welfare first, but allows for the development of the resources.”
For her part, Lynne, a former health insurance executive and current lieutenant governor running in her first campaign for public office, set out to school Johnston and Kennedy about how they portrayed Colorado’s existing policies. (Kennedy wasn’t impressed.)
“I’m going to challenge what the other two candidates said because public health and safety is not a balancing act,” she said during the debate. ”It isn’t something that should be a priority, it is a priority already in this administration,” she said. “That’s our number one lens we look at when we look at these issues.”
Lynne said Coloradans have to live together in a place where oil-and-gas development and houses exist in close proximity. And she applauded communities that worked to negotiate with drilling companies.
“I think that’s the way that we lead in Colorado is through collaboration,” she said.
About drilling operators and those who work in the industry, she said, they live in the same communities where they are often drilling. “So they’re not going to be ignoring some of those public safety and health issues,” she said, “and I think through collaboration we can get this done.”
Asked if voters of a municipality do vote to shut down a drilling operation if the state should be able to overrule it, Lynne said local bans should not be allowed.
“I think they should use the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, they should use [what] the governor has as her bully pulpit to be able to prevent some of that even getting to the ballot so we don’t get involved in expensive legal battles,” she said.
Boulder Congressman Jared Polis missed the debate because he was in Washington, D.C.; Erik Underwood, who is also running for governor as a Democrat, was not invited to attend.