Local control efforts moving ahead for now

The Colorado Statesman

Proponents of a series of proposed ballot initiatives that would authorize local governments to ban hydraulic fracturing are moving ahead after negotiations around a legislative fix failed.

Coloradans For Local Control had watched the negotiations carefully; they are proposing ballot questions that would authorize local control over oil and gas development, potentially expanding fracking bans in some towns, cities and counties.

The negotiations aimed to convince U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, to drop the multi-million dollar local control effort, which the self-made millionaire is financing. Polis only became heavily involved after he experienced fracking firsthand when a well was drilled near his country home just outside Loveland.

The negotiations sought a compromise, which would have limited control by cities and counties to setbacks and inspections.

It remains to be seen, however, whether such a compromise would have actually inspired so-called “fractivists” to drop their push. Even if Polis had agreed to drop his effort, other environmental and community groups could have forged ahead.

Reps. Su Ryden, D-Aurora, and House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, led the talks between energy interests and local control factions. But the two lawmakers announced early on May 5 that they were unable to strike a deal.

The legislators say they will continue working on negotiations, which could possibly end in a special session this summer to pass some semblance of legislation addressing the local control issue.

“Addressing Colorado citizens’ concerns about the impacts of oil and gas development on their lives and their communities is a top priority for us as policymakers. To address those concerns, we have been involved in extensive discussions involving a variety of stakeholders, including other legislators, the conservation community, oil and gas operators and the Hickenlooper administration,” read a joint statement from Ryden and Hullinghorst.

“It is of critical importance to people across this state to balance local communities’ ability to act to protect the health, safety and welfare of Colorado families while also creating a consistent and predictable regulatory framework that allows for responsible energy development,” the statement continued.

Meanwhile, proponents are moving forward with their ballot drive. A series of proposals have been titled, but the language in several of the proposals is being challenged before the Colorado Supreme Court. Once titles are finalized, proponents would need to collect 86,105 valid signatures to make the November ballot.

“We’ve been watching it very closely. We’ve always hoped that there would be a legislative solution. We felt the best way to avoiding an initiative is by a representative government taking forth and going forward,” explained Rick Ridder, a strategist for the Coloradans for Local Control campaign.

Ridder said the disconnect was that conversations focused on politics, rather than the “concerns of families living in Colorado’s growing gas patch.”

Concerns around fracking have grown as the controversial exploratory process has made its way to the Front Range. Fracking is used in wells by utilizing chemicals, sand and water to create small fractures under the ground in order to stimulate production of new and existing oil and gas wells.

Fears exist that water can become contaminated and air can become polluted. There are also nuisance concerns, such as noise and congestion.

The issue hit the mainstream in Colorado in 2012 when voters in Longmont banned fracking. It gained momentum last year when Broomfield, Fort Collins and Boulder joined with five-year moratoriums. Lafayette passed a ban on new oil and gas activities. Loveland may also soon be considering a ban on fracking.

The local bans have resulted in ongoing lawsuits, as the industry and Gov. John Hickenlooper believe that the ordinances overstep the state’s authority. The state promulgates oil and gas rules through the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Conservation groups — who had been allusive about the proposed local control proposals while legislative negotiations were ongoing — appeared ready to jump on board.

“As the session ends without resolution to these important issues, Coloradans will have to consider if there are alternative forums to protect Coloradans and hold the industry accountable for their impacts on our communities,” said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado.

Interests from both sides of the debate say the campaign could cost as much as $50 million between proponents and opponents from the oil and gas industry.

Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy is the issue committee formed to support the ballot drive. They had not filed any contributions yet with the secretary of state’s office.

Opposition begins raising money, organizing

Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy and Energy Independence, the issue committee established to fight fracking bans, has already raised about $2.1 million, according to the first filings with the secretary of state’s office. Anadarko Petroleum Corporation and Noble Energy are leading the charge.

Coloradans for Responsible Reform has also joined the opposition, recently announcing the launch of a new campaign to defeat the proposed initiatives. It has already raised $770,000.

The bipartisan coalition includes high-profile business and civic leaders, including Kelly Brough, president and chief executive of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, former Interior Secretary and U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, Tamra Ward, president and chief executive of Colorado Concern, and former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb.

“Coloradans for Responsible Reform is the citizens’ brigade committed to protecting the state’s economy,” explained Brough. “These anti-business measures would cripple Colorado’s energy sector, wrecking our economy and killing jobs.”

The coalition has gotten a boost from Salazar. Much like Hickenlooper, the two Democrats disagree with their fellow Democrat Polis on the dangers of fracking.

“These wrongheaded measures effectively ban oil and gas development in Colorado and will cripple Colorado’s economy,” declared Salazar, who believes that he has been a champion for the environment by working for decades to improve the quality of life for Coloradans through conservation efforts.

“Now the balanced development of our natural resources and the quality of life we have worked so hard to achieve is threatened by what will become effective bans on Colorado’s oil and gas industry. We cannot afford to kill Colorado’s economic recovery,” added Salazar.

Is a special session coming?

The largest outstanding question, however, is whether Hickenlooper will call a special session this summer to once again attempt to address the issue on a legislative level.
The governor on Thursday was not overly optimistic that negotiations will result in a deal that ends in a special session and successful legislation. But he did not rule it out as a possibility, referring to himself as a “hopeless optimist.”

“We’re not close enough yet,” explained the governor. “We made tremendous progress, and I think it was enough progress so that it’s worth continuing to talk and try and work through that split. There’s no point in calling a special session unless you get to some place.

“I do feel that the longer the people stay at the table… both sides generally become a little more flexible and a little more open to a compromise… We definitely saw that in the last week and a half,” Hickenlooper added.

Part of the problem is that there are many factions to each side of the debate. But Hickenlooper said that he is working to expand conversations and broaden the stakeholder group.

“The way we have historically tried to do this is to get a core set of values laid out on what a compromise might look like, and then you go out, and as you begin to get closer to that you go out and expand and talk to more and more people…” explained Hickenlooper. “The challenge there is that as you go out into a larger circle, a larger network of voices… you have to go back and make sure that everybody who is on board is OK with those changes. It’s a time consuming process.”

The governor, however, is very concerned about the proposed ballot questions, suggesting that they are a “draconian” approach to solving the issue.

“Ballot initiatives are thumbs up or thumbs down. They’re binary. They either pass or they don’t pass. So, they’re often a pretty crude way to work on complex issues,” opined Hickenlooper.

“If there’s a way we can figure out how to give communities enough local control so that they’re satisfied and they feel that they do have a voice — maybe they don’t get everything they want, or exactly what they want each time — but they are going to have a voice in the process. I think, honestly, that we end up with less bans and less threatened bans just creating the opportunity for people to be part of the dialogue.”

Hullinghorst on Thursday seemed a bit more optimistic that the negotiations may result in a special session to pass a compromise.

“It’s all about balancing the expectations and interests of the communities involved and close to oil and gas exploration and development with the needs of the oil and gas companies…” she said. “If there is an agreement, I think we will probably see a special session.”

Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, who has long called for increased regulations on the oil and gas industry, said she is unsure that a special session is the wise move.

“I don’t think a special session is warranted or a good idea,” she said. “Besides being about $23,000 a day to taxpayers, I don’t think there would be a different result… I don’t have a sense that if we called back a special session that we’re closer enough to actually pass a bill… It may be that this is one where the people end up weighing in.”

Republicans are willing to entertain a special session if a deal is reached, but they are hesitant unless the governor is absolutely sure that progress can be made.

“I’m not driving the bus on whether or not we’re having a special session, so nobody ever really wants to come back for a special session, but we’re never going to say ‘no’ to something we haven’t seen…” said House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland.

“It’s wise if there is a way to avoid ballot initiatives, and if the two sides can work it out, it’s always better to work out a problem than have a big nasty fight…” he continued. “I would like to see a lot of inclusiveness from all parties involved.”

“Special sessions are special because they’re not fun,” joked Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs. “Nobody wants to come back to this place in the summer and spend a few days here, but really what we have to be focused on is what’s in the best interest of the state, what’s in the best interest of Coloradans, and what’s in the best interest of protecting a significant industry here.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com