GOLDEN, COLORADO — An 11th-hour compromise brokered by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) to keep contentious oil and gas measures off the November election ballot may simply delay the day of reckoning for both sides in the battle over how tightly the booming industry is regulated.
That epic battle, pitting the oil and gas industry and Colorado’s mainstream political establishment against activists concerned that drilling and fracking have gotten out of hand in Colorado, had been building for months, with the airwaves awash in pro-industry advertising seeking to characterize the industry as benign and economically valuable. One prominent pollster predicted that industry spending on the issue through the November election would be in the range of $30 to $40 million, three times what oil and gas interests spent to defeat a 2008 ballot question that would have raised their taxes.
But the electoral clash was averted as Hickenlooper and ballot question backer Rep. Jared Polis (D) declared a truce. Key to the deal is the appointment of an 18-member commission — expected to be named as early as this week — that will have the delicate task of recommending to the legislature ways to resolve conflicts between the oil and gas industry and citizens increasingly alarmed by energy development close to their homes and communities.
But any consensus recommendations that emerge from the commission — composed of six representatives each of the industry, civic leaders, and people directly affected by oil and gas development — will have to be approved by what is likely to be a deeply divided state legislature.
If the commission cannot reach a consensus, or they reach a consensus that cannot win legislative approval, then advocates for stricter control of oil and gas development will almost certainly be back with ballot initiatives in 2016, a presidential election year that will drive more voters to the polls. A higher turnout is likely to favor ballot measures tightening oil and gas regulations, say supporters.
“I don’t know that the likelihood is great that the commission will produce something that can pass the legislature,” said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado, a state environmental group. “But having said that, it may just be that enough people on the commission are going to realize that this problem isn’t going to go away and that at some point the legislature is going to want to address it.”
Hickenlooper and Polis unveiled the compromise two weeks ago that removed four controversial ballot measures, two supported and bankrolled by Polis designed to put more restrictions on drilling and hydraulic fracturing and two supported by the oil and gas industry intended to dissuade anti-drilling efforts. The measures supported by Polis and tens of thousands of citizens worried about drilling and fracking would have required that drill rigs be kept at least 2,000 feet away from homes — four times the current limit — and given local communities more control over drilling operations.
As part of the deal, the state oil and gas commission dropped its lawsuit against the city of Longmont, which had approved a ban on drilling in residential neighborhoods. Courts have recently thrown out two other municipal bans in Colorado.
In handing the issue to an 18-member commission to untangle over the next six months, the governor and other parties to the deal avoided what was likely to be an exceedingly expensive and divisive election issue at a time when the governor himself and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall are both facing strong challenges to re-election.
Hickenlooper has said he will try to pick members of the commission “with the attitude to get to yes.” An announcement of his choices has been delayed because of intense interest by a large group of people anxious to serve, said the task force chairman, Gwen Lachelt.
“It’s proven to be a more difficult task because so many qualified folks applied,” Lachelt said.
Some anti-drilling activists were angered by Polis’ agreement to the deal, and let him know it in no uncertain terms in a conference call after the deal was announced, said one activist from heavily-drilled Weld County north of Denver.
Polis told the group, said the Weld County activist who requested anonymity, “that this does not mean there won’t be a ballot fight in 2016, a more favorable time.”
Therese Gilbert, a Greeley, Colorado middle school teacher who is worried particularly about air and water quality impacts of extensive drilling in Weld County, said in an interview that the governor and other parties to the deal are “kicking the can down the road.” Efforts to win more local control of oil and gas activities, she said, are “a fool’s game” because counties like hers are dominated politically by pro-industry office holders.