No special session on fracking issue

Controversy could move to ballot box

Vic Vela
Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks out against ballot initiatives that would place restrictions on oil and gas operations during a July 17 press conference in downtown Denver. The governor was joined by several leaders in politics, business and the energy industry.
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The battle over hydraulic fracturing revved up last week as a diverse group of state, energy and business leaders joined Gov. John Hickenlooper in speaking out against potential ballot measures that would limit the oil- and gas-drilling practice statewide.

The move came on July 17, a day after Hickenlooper ended his long-shot effort at convening a legislative special session to deal with the highly contentious political issue.

Hickenlooper had hoped to accomplish a legislative compromise over fracking issues in order to avoid an expensive, high-stakes battle at the ballot box this November.

With no fracking legislation in place to stop ballot measures from moving forward, Hickenlooper took aim at initiatives that he feels will have “potentially disastrous consequences” if they prevail in November.

“With November’s election fast approaching, we all agree we must all turn our full attention to defeating these ballot measures,” Hickenlooper said at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

The governor was joined by business leaders and a bipartisan group of politicians to denounce fracking initiatives that could result in the loss of “thousands and thousands of jobs, billions of dollars in investment and hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local tax revenues.”

The debate over fracking — the process in which high-pressure fluid is blasted deep into the ground to free up oil and gas — has reached a pivotal point, now that it appears that voters will be weighing in on the issue in November.

Supporters of fracking say it is a job creator and a vital part of Colorado’s economy. Opponents have serious environmental and health concerns.

The proposals would allow communities to have more control over where drilling takes place. And one effort would amend the state Constitution to require that wells be placed at least 2,000 feet from structures, up from the current setback of 500 feet.

Oil and gas industry leaders say the proposed setback requirement is tantamount to a drilling ban in Colorado. Hickenlooper said the proposed “arbitrary” setback limit “provides no room to adjust based on local conditions and realities in specific communities.”

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a wealthy Boulder Democrat who will largely finance the fracking-limits campaign, is backing the setback initiative.

After seeing a potential legislative compromise fail, Polis said, “We must turn to the people of Colorado to solve this problem.”

“I have said from the beginning of this debate that my one goal is to find a solution that will allow my constituents to live safely in their homes, free from the fear of declining property values or unnecessary health risks, but also that will allow our state to continue to benefit from the oil and gas boom that brings jobs and increased energy security,” Polis said through an emailed statement.

“I stand by this goal, I am confident that the majority of Coloradans share this goal, and I am committed to continuing to work to protect our Colorado values.”

Hickenlooper acknowledged the environmental concerns over fracking, touting tough new energy regulations that impose emission and methane controls and put in place strict fracking fluid disclosure requirements.

“We’re proving that we can take full advantage of the innovations of oil and gas development while at the same time maintaining the highest ethical, safety and environmental standards,” Hickenlooper said.

It’s likely that voters will continue to weigh in on fracking issues for years to come as long as there is no legislative solution to the issue — but finding that solution has proven to be a difficult task.

The prospects of divided stakeholders coming together for a compromise on fracking were dim from the start this year. Still, Hickenlooper held out hope for months that all sides could find common ground in order to avoid “draconian” ballot measures.

The governor told reporters in May that the odds were “50-50” that he would call a special session. However, he lowered those odds last month before finally calling off any plans for a special session.

A large obstacle was finding a balance that appeases community concerns, but also protects homeowners’ abilities to collect mineral-rights royalties when drilling occurs on their properties.

“I think there is compromise there that will allow a measure of local control in some way but will at the same time protect the private property rights,” Hickenlooper said. “But that’s probably going to take a long process. Again, there’s a lot of emotion here and trying to do it rapidly proved to be clearly difficult.”

State House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Gunbarrel, who played a large role in the negotiations, said she is “not giving up” on finding solutions to the debate over drilling. Still, she understands the political reality of this hot-button issue.

“I’m disappointed that we were unable to forge a local-control accord on oil and gas development with enough bipartisan support to pass the General Assembly this year,” she said. “It would be a waste of taxpayers’ money to hold a special session that likely would not achieve a legislative solution.”