State politics

Fracking initiatives dropped

Gov. Hickenlooper and Polis reach deal — task force created

Photo by Vic Vela
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis discussing the details of a deal reached with Governor John Hickenlooper concerning fracking and local control initiatives on Monday, Aug. 4.
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Voters will not be weighing in on hydraulic fracturing this November after all.

Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis announced an 11th hour deal on Aug. 4 to create a special task force to address issues surrounding fracking - the very day that signatures to put fracking on the November ballot were due for submission to the Secretary of State's Office.

The task force is part of a deal that the two Democrats reached in the days leading up to the announcement that will also end efforts by Polis to place two anti-fracking ballot initiatives on the November ballot.

Later in the day, pro-fracking groups said they too will drop their own ballot initiative efforts, suddenly ending what was gearing up to be a ballot box fight that was expected to be costly - both in terms of campaign advertising dollars and potentially in political price for other candidates seeking office this fall.

The Polis-backed initiatives sought to increase setback requirements for wells and would have also given communities greater control over oil and gas drilling operations. Pro-fracking groups had sought initiatives that could have had economic impacts on communities that ban fracking - the process by which water and chemicals are blasted into the ground to free up trapped oil and gas underneath.

Also as part of the agreement, Hickenlooper said that the state would work to end a lawsuit against Longmont over new oil and gas regulations the city adopted two years ago.

But the big news is the agreement to pull the ballot measures.

Hickenlooper and the oil and gas industry had opposed Polis' efforts, concerned that the initiatives would be akin to a fracking ban in a state that relies on drilling to feed the economy.

And Democrats were concerned that an expensive fracking battle would hurt candidates this November, especially Sen. Mark Udall, who is locked in a tight re-election campaign against U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner.

But those fears for Democrats now appear to be over as Polis announced he is backing off of his efforts to continue to pursue the initiatives, measures that he had been helping to finance.

Polis said during a hastily-called Capitol press conference that he considers the creation of a task force to be "a victory for the people of Colorado."

"For the first time, with the (oil and gas) commission that the governor mentioned, citizens will be on equal footing with the oil and gas industry and will be able to directly negotiate to protect their property rights, home values, and air quality," Polis said.

The 18-member task force would be charged with helping to "minimize land use conflicts that can occur when siting oil and gas facilities near homes, schools, businesses and recreational areas," according to the governor's office.

The task force would be made up a diverse group of members from across all business fields. Members would include representatives from the industries of oil and gas, conservation, agriculture, homebuilders and local governments and civic leaders.

The task force would make recommendations on fracking issues to the Legislature.

Fight over for now

Although the agreement had been announced by the governor and Polis, it was still unclear at the time of the press event whether pro-fracking groups would agree to drop their own measures.

That question was answered late that same evening by Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, who was behind an initiative that would have prohibited communities that ban fracking from collecting revenues that are a part of oil and gas revenue allocation.

McNulty said through a press statement that he would suspend his efforts, calling the decision by Polis to drop his initiatives "an exciting turn of events."

Another pro-fracking initiative, which would have dealt with financial disclosure issues of future ballot measures that deal with energy development, was also dropped.

Hickenlooper had cautioned for months that the ballot initiatives could have "draconian" results on an industry that generates jobs and contributes billions of dollars to the Colorado economy.

For months, the governor held out hope of calling a special session to address local control issues surrounding fracking, only to call off those efforts last month after a compromise had failed to materialize.

It now appears that the governor doesn't have to worry about an expensive fight over fracking in November.

"The (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 would have imposed a significant threat to Colorado's economy," Hickenlooper said.

As for the Longmont litigation, Hickenlooper said he would call on the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission to drop its lawsuit against the city. The city had created its own set of rules surrounding fracking, including a requirement that wells be placed at least 750 feet from an occupied dwelling.

The lawsuit marked the first time the state had sued a city over its own oil and gas rules.

Fracking politics play out

The politics of fracking played out almost immediately after the press conference ended.

Former Congressman Bob Beauprez, who is running against Hickenlooper this fall, blasted the "backroom deal" reached by the governor and Polis as having left "many unanswered questions."

Colorado Republican Chairman Ryan Call was also critical of the announcement.

"Literally, the only thing that we know for certain after today's press conference is that Gov. Hickenlooper, Jared Polis and Colorado Democrats want even more control over Colorado's already heavily regulated energy industry," Call said through an emailed statement.

As for Udall, he had been in a tough spot on the fracking issue, considering that a large number of environmentalists - a key Udall constituency - had been behind Polis' efforts.

The senator issued a statement in favor of the agreement.

"This deal - which averts a divisive and counterproductive ballot fight over one-size-fits-all restrictions - is welcome news and underscores how all of Colorado benefits when we find common ground," Udall said.

Polis, whose district includes some cities that have voted to ban fracking, told reporters that he had never been pressured by fellow Democrats worried about the political ramifications to halt his efforts.

"I would say no," Polis said. "The Democrats in my district were very excited about these initiatives and the chance to fight it out and protect their homes. Obviously this will be disappointing to some of my constituents, Republican and Democratic, but I would point out to them that there's been progress made."