Schuller, Polis air their views

Foes on fracking drill away at each other
The Colorado Statesman

Colorado’s top oil and gas advocate, Tisha Schuller, finally got her chance on Tuesday to drill away at U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who has become the face of a campaign that could lead to banning hydraulic fracturing across Colorado.

Schuller, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, challenged Polis to a debate back in December 2013. She called on the congressman to debate her after Polis demanded that COGA halt legal action against so-called “fracking” bans in several local communities.

Five municipalities have already banned fracking, beginning with Longmont in 2012, and then spilling over into other communities along the Front Range. Broomfield, Fort Collins and Boulder passed five-year moratoriums last year, and Lafayette passed a ban on new oil and gas activities. Loveland will also soon be considering a moratorium on fracking with a ballot question that will be decided on June 24.

Colorado Oil and Gas Association President Tisha Schuller spars with U.S. Rep. Jared Polis during a 9News forum held Tuesday on fracking. The program aired Saturday. Polis joined by satellite from Washington, D.C. Hosts Brandon Rittiman and Kyle Clark moderate.
Photo courtesy of KUSA-TV 9News.

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

Concerns around fracking have intensified 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 polluted. There are also nuisance concerns, such as noise and congestion.

Enter Polis, a Boulder Democrat and self-made millionaire who became more vocal after a well was drilled near his country home just outside Loveland. Polis is not only funding initiatives that would authorize local control over oil and gas development, he has also become a bit of a spokesman, which is why Schuller targeted him.

“It’s no secret that my fellow Boulderite Congressman Jared Polis has long-held concerns about oil and gas development and his latest decision to weigh in on our recent legal action highlights his anxieties,” Schuller said in a statement in December 2013. “I think he would be doing his constituents and the public at large a great service if we participated in a series of public forums about Colorado’s energy future.”

Polis never committed to a series of public forums. But he did agree to join Schuller in a forum produced by KUSA-TV 9News on Tuesday. The program, “Balance of Power,” was scheduled to air Saturday, May 31 at 6 p.m.

During the forum, Polis argued in favor of allowing local governments to enact their own oil and gas rules and regulations. But he stopped short of indicating any support for fracking bans on the whole.

“In the district that I represent, four of the five largest cities have already passed moratoriums on fracking or bans on fracking. I don’t have any position on those, but I believe it is their right to decide whether they want it or not like any other kind of economic activity,” Polis explained via satellite from Washington, D.C.

“Fracking happens often without any warning even for the neighbors…” he added. “You’ve got to level the playing field and make sure that renewable energy can compete on the same level playing field as fossil fuel energy.”

Would special session work?

Negotiations continue between the governor’s office, industry executives and local control advocates. Hickenlooper said that if he can strike a deal, then he would call a special session to address legislation that could perhaps halt the ballot drives.

Rumors are swirling that a special session could be coming as early as next week. But a spokesman for Hickenlooper said only that, “Discussion continues. No decision made about special session, nor have dates been set.”

Sources close to the negotiations told The Colorado Statesman that oil and gas executives remain skeptical about local control and increased setbacks, which remain the most contentious issues that would likely be addressed in a special session. But stakeholders seem to agree that the discussions have been productive and that progress has been made.

Given the more than $23,000 a day it costs taxpayers to conduct a special session, Hickenlooper likely won’t call one unless he has a near guarantee that the legislature would pass a compromise.

The clock is ticking because it would make more sense to strike a deal before the election season heats up. Once stakeholders begin investing millions and millions of dollars into their respective campaigns, it would become increasingly difficult to strike any sort of a bargain.

Schuller said the issue is not about compromise, suggesting that eroding the state’s authority could lead the state down a slippery slope. She believes that local governments already have power through liaisons and other resources within the COGCC.

“What we’re really talking about is not a compromise, but whether we’re having ballot initiatives that are about banning fracking,” opined Schuller. “We’ve seen a constant evolution from taking things from the state to the cities and then to the voters on the local level. We don’t want to be having this conversation at all. Local governments are powerful and we want to ensure that we can continue working with our local governments.”

Polis said he is open to a compromise, but that the deal would need to clearly offer a solution to the tensions that flow through local communities like frack fluid through a well.

“What there needs to be is a solution to the current fighting that’s occurring in our cities and our counties…” said Polis. “People are upset. They can’t complain to their commissioners, they can’t complain to their city council — So, it’s about appropriately including the local elected officials…

“As long as it’s a solution where people can be reasonably safe in their homes and the industry can have the stability that they need to operate… I think [that] would be a strong step forward for our economy and for job creation in Colorado,” added Polis.

Schuller, however, fired back, suggesting that local control is only a disguise for an agenda that truly seeks to ban fracking and eliminate fossil fuels.

“When we’re talking about other solutions, let’s be clear. We’re talking about banning oil and gas development. We’re not talking about giving local governments a role. They have a role and they have a significant one,” said Schuller.

Getting personal

Things progressively became more heated between Polis and Schuller as the forum continued.

“It’s just this question of sort of entitlement that the oil and gas industry feels,” jabbed Polis. “If we were talking about putting windmills in there or large scale solar, it takes years of planning. There’s no way they could put one in the midst of a residential neighborhood without notice, without mitigation. But oil and gas can.”

Schuller began to interject, but Polis spoke over her, prompting Schuller to declare, “I’m still talking…

“The ballots are fundamentally irresponsible because they are insisting that communities have someone else produce their energy and that the state as a whole be denied the opportunity for this production of energy,” Schuller continued.

Polis doubled down, adding, “That’s a ridiculous mischaracterization. First of all, I don’t support banning oil and gas development, and I don’t think many of the proponents of local control or additional setbacks do. It’s about allowing the oil and gas industry to get along with the rest of the state…”

The intense nature of the debate has impacted Polis personally. In a recent ad by Log Cabin Republicans, Polis is dubbed “King Jared.” The congressman is shown wearing a crown and robe.

Log Cabin Republicans advocate for LGBT issues and Polis is openly gay, though the group said they did not target Polis because of his sexual orientation. The congressman said that he doesn’t take it too personally.

“When you’re in the public sphere as I am, when something happened to me, obviously I shared that with the public,” explained Polis. “There was fracking next to me just as there has been to thousands or tens of thousands of my constituents.

“In my case, I have the ability to sell the place, I have the ability to move,” he continued. “But what if all my equity was tied up in my home? What if I didn’t have the ability to simply sell it and move on? And I’ve heard from constituents in my district that are now under water on their mortgages and really don’t know where to turn because of the lack of local control and the lack of sufficient setbacks.”

Schuller has also experienced similar personal attacks, with some so-called “fractivists” targeting her personally. But she said it is worth it to defend the industry.

“I’m not surprised, but I’ll say why I continue even though I’ve been threatened, my children have been threatened,” explained Schuller. “There are tens of thousands of oil and gas families and we’re all raising our children in Colorado. The next generation of Coloradans are coming from oil and gas families, as well as others, and we’re extraordinarily proud of the energy we provide, the environmental solutions…

“I love this industry,” she continued. “I’m an environmentalist. I’m one of Congressman Polis’ constituents from Boulder… This is an industry that is the heartbeat of Colorado.”

Polis then got in one last jab by adding, “Tisha, I’d love to have your vote this November.”

Infighting could hurt efforts

But before there are any votes on local control or any other issues surrounding oil and gas regulation, proponents must narrow down a list of more than a dozen proposed ballot questions.

Doing so is easier said than done with several different factions within the anti-fracking community.

Between proponents and oil and gas money, the campaign is likely to run in the tens of millions of dollars.

Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy is the issue committee established to financially support one faction of the local control, anti-fracking world. It is the most well funded committee. Backed by Polis, the group started with $1.4 million thanks to a donation from Coloradans for Local Control.

But Coloradans for Local Control isn’t the only player on that side of the debate. Colorado Community Rights Network has also established an issue committee to support their own local control ballot drive. Their first financial filing is due on June 3.

Currently standing as Initiative 75, the proposed ballot question would stretch a bit further than those proposed by Coloradans for Local Control by offering local governments more control over businesses and corporations that impact the health and safety of a community.

Proponent Clifton Willmeng, who was instrumental in pushing the ban in Lafayette, has spearheaded the statewide proposal from Colorado Community Rights Network. The language received approval from the Colorado Supreme Court last week and proponents are gearing up to collect signatures.

Willmeng acknowledged that his group is working independently of Coloradans for Local Control. But he doesn’t believe a splintered effort will be a problem moving forward, despite going up against a well-funded oil and gas industry.

Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy and Energy Independence, the issue committee created to fight fracking bans, has already raised nearly $3 million. Anadarko Petroleum Corporation and Noble Energy are leading the opposition.

Also, a business-oriented group, Coloradans for Responsible Reform, has joined the opposition, raising $770,000 for the counter effort.

And just a few short months after its formation, more than 2,400 businesses, trade associations, chambers of commerce, sportsmen organizations, agricultural organizations, local governments, non-profits, and citizens have signed the Vital For Colorado pledge. The pledge supports oil and natural gas development in Colorado, and it opposes energy bans and patchwork regulation.

Signers run the gamut from large and politically influential business groups — the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, the National Federation of Independent Business, Action 22, Club 20, Progressive 15, Colorado Contractors Association — to regional chambers of commerce in Grand Junction, Loveland and Denver. Scores of individual small businesses also have signed — everything from lawn companies to auto repair shops, banks, ranches, real estate brokers, farmers, dairy owners, and sporting goods stores.

Willmeng from Colorado Community Rights Network said there is no point in a unified effort if not all the proponents of local control agree with the strategy. Willmeng is concerned about the negotiations led by Hickenlooper, a former geologist and oil and gas advocate who supports hydraulic fracturing.

Even if the governor is able to strike a deal that results in a special session, it doesn’t appear that Colorado Community Rights Network is willing to back away from their proposal. That means that even despite some sort of grand bargain, voters could still be asked this November to pass a law that could lead to more fracking bans.

“We have no idea what the intentions of those proponents are,” explained Willmeng. “I know that they are comfortable negotiating with the governor. We don’t know if they’re going to make some bargain for legislation. We have no way of determining what their intentions are.

“Our ballot initiative addresses what we consider to be democratic fundamental necessities,” added Willmeng. “This is bigger than just oil and gas… Our ballot initiative is here to stay.”

Rick Ridder, a strategist for Coloradans for Local Control, said he is not worried that infighting and a divided effort could sink the drive, even if voters are presented with multiple questions that could seem similar to them.

“Our goal is to put forward initiatives that are pretty clear on what our goal is, and we understand that there are others who have different goals,” explained Ridder. “I don’t think that they’re confusing, and I think that fundamentally, we will be going forward with our initiatives.

“In the end,” added Ridder, “I think we’ll all come together.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com