11th-hour Deal Shifts Direction of Colorado Fracking Fight

Colo. Gov. John Hickenlooper, right, speaks as U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., left, stands nearby, during a news conference about fracking, at the Capitol in Denver, Monday Aug. 4, 2014. Colo. Gov. John Hickenlooper, right, speaks as U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., left, stands nearby, during a news conference about fracking, at the Capitol in Denver, Monday Aug. 4, 2014. AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis struck a deal on Monday that will likely avert a very expensive ballot-initiative battle over local government control of oil and gas drilling, especially the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing.

Facing an increasingly tight reelection bid in November, Hickenlooper, a Democrat, had been struggling all spring and summer to craft compromise legislation to avoid a quartet of initiatives—two of which were funded by Polis, also a Democrat, and staunchly opposed by the oil and gas industry.

Initiatives 88 and 89 would have, respectively, established 2,000-foot setbacks for drilling rigs away from homes and schools and boosted municipal and county regulation of state-controlled drilling by adding an environmental bill of rights to the Colorado Constitution.

Oil and gas industry companies and trade groups had already begun pumping millions of dollars into campaign war chests, and Democrats feared both Hickenlooper and incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Udall would suffer the collateral damage of ramped-up Republican spending.

Monday’s deal forms an 18-member committee of business, government and environmental interests to recommend local-control laws for the next state legislative session in January, and it also should lead to the withdrawal of an industry and state lawsuit against the city of Longmont for its more restrictive drilling regulations. Late Monday, groups representing the two anti-drilling initiatives and two pro-industry initiatives reportedly had agreed to pull out of the fight.

“With this accord we avoid a bitter and costly fight in this year’s election, and we increase protections for Colorado families who have suffered real impacts from the recent boom in oil and gas exploration,” State House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, said in a statement.

Mainstream environmental groups backed the accord, and Hickenlooper, a former Denver mayor known for crossing the aisle to build consensus, held the deal up as a possible model for other states grappling with local-control issues. Fracking bans are cropping up from New Jersey to California as grassroots community groups form out of mounting concern for public health.

“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, a former oil and gas industry geologist turned brewer and restaurateur, said in his announcement.

“This approach will put the matter in the hands of a balanced group of thoughtful community leaders, business representatives and citizens who can advise the legislature and the executive branch on the best path forward,” the governor said.

The committee will be co-chaired by a county commissioner and an oil and gas company executive and also include representatives of the home building and agriculture industries. Other civic, business and environmental representatives will also be included.

“For the first time citizens will be on equal footing to the oil and gas industry, and able to negotiate directly for regulations that protect property rights, homes values, clean water, and air quality,” Polis said in a statement.

But community activist groups that had spent weeks collecting the more than 100,000 signatures needed to land the initiatives on the ballot expressed dismay at the deal on Monday.

“We are outraged to see politicians once again prioritizing political expediency over the health and well-being of Coloradans,” Russell Mendell of Frack Free Colorado said in a release. “The proposed compromise represents a failure on the part of both Polis and Hickenlooper to protect Coloradans from the dangers of fracking.”

A coalition of grassroots environmental groups vowed to keep fighting for tighter local control over fracking.

David O. Williams is managing editor of the Rocky Mountain Post and is based in Eagle, Colorado.

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