By Local: Compromise Struck in CO Fracking Debate Aimed at Heading Off Ballot Initiatives

 Photo by Steve Harbula, via Flickr
DENVER — After months of thorny, stop-and-start negotiations that in recent weeks seemed doomed to fail, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper announced today that he had succeeded in wringing a truce out of dueling big-money backers of ballot initiative proposals concerning local control over oil and gas development in the state.

The announcement was met with great celebration and relief in Denver but it’s unclear exactly what it will mean come Election Day in November. The deal after all has arrived late on this year’s midterm elections calendar.

Even though peeling the money out of the political battle will drain it of energy, cut back on ground-game campaigns over the next few months and unclog airwaves already brimming with ads for and against the proposals, the proponents of the initiatives have already submitted more than enough signatures to land their initiatives on state ballots and at least some of the proponents have signaled they have no intention to halt their efforts to win over voters to their cause.

Blue ribbon commission

The deal centers on the establishment of an 18-member blue-ribbon commission that will include representatives of the the drilling and construction industries, the agricultural community, conservationists and local government officials and civic leaders. The commission will make recommendations to the state legislature, which plans to work on a measure to address the next session, which begins in January.

The commission will be chaired by Gwen Lacelt, the La Plata County commissioner, and Randy Cleveland, the president of XTO Energy.

“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 announced in a conference at the state capital today.

State House Majority Leader Dicky Lee Hullinghorst, a Democrat from Boulder where hydraulic fracturing activity has expanded dramatically in recent years drawing great citizen push-back, worked intensely with Hickenlooper over the last two months on the compromise. She lauded the deal announced today as the best way to head off a bitter and expensive battle at the polls.

Lawsuit questions and good feelings

Hickenlooper also said that as part of the deal he would drop the state lawsuit against the town of Longmont, just northwest of Boulder. Longmont has led in the fight for local control over drilling. Residents have passed laws creating stricter zoning regulations and a city-wide ban on fracking. The deal would see the state suit aimed at lifting the regulations dropped. It will be up the Colorado Oil and Gas Association to drop the lawsuit seeking to lift the fracking ban.

The Association lauded the deal in a release today but didn’t say whether it will drop its lawsuit.

Hickenlooper, who had seemed at a loss for weeks as parties to negotiations battled in the media and seemed to grow increasingly rigid in their positions, drew a hearty round of compliments for his persistence.

“By putting the state’s interests ahead of politics, the governor has a cleared a path for conversation and understanding, rather than fighting through talking points,” said Tisha Schuller, COGA president and CEO.

Pete Mason, executive director of Conservation Colorado, roughly agreed, thanking Hickenlooper for dropping the lawsuit against Longmont, which he called “a significant step forward.”

Wealthy Boulder Congressman Jared Polis, the primary funder behind ballot initiatives 88 and 89, which aims to increase the power of local authorities to regulate oil and gas drilling in their communities, stood beside Hickenlooper at the announcement today.

“My own personal preference has always been to address these issues legislatively,” Polis said.

Polis dodged questions about whether Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, the issue committee pushing the initiatives he’d just agreed not to fund, would actually drop their fight.

A deal but not yet an end

Indeed, the compromise so far seems to be one struck between Polis and major Colorado drilling companies Noble Energy and Anadarko.

The grassroots activists who have spent months gathering signatures may be a little slower to come on board.

State Representative Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said he has no plans to pull his Initiative 121 and that no one has asked him to pull it. His initiative, proposed together with Rep. Frank McNulty, R- Highlands Ranch and backed by oil and gas companies, targets cities and towns that have passed fracking bans by barring them from receiving tax revenue generated by oil-and-gas development elsewhere in the state. Sonnenberg said he hasn’t talked to anyone involved in the deal announced today.

He and McNulty turned in just more than 130,000 signatures in support of the initiative this morning. Sonnenberg said he handed them in and was on his way back to his farm.

Roughly 86,000 valid signatures are required to land a measure on the ballot.

According to the state election calendar, the Secretary of State must certify signatures by September 3rd and then the proponents will have to decide whether or not to go forward with their efforts by September 23, when ballots and the blue books explaining the ballot to voters, will be finalized county to county.

Sonnenberg said his proposal is about fairness, arguing that communities that don’t have to spend money to mitigate the impacts of oil and gas development because they’ve banned or curtailed it, shouldn’t get the tax money designed for that purpose.

“My initiative is not part of the conversation as I understand it. Nobody is talking to me… I haven’t been part of negotiations either from the oil-and-gas side or from Jared Polis’s side,” he told The Independent.

“I’d assume that if you have a compromise involving my ballot initiative that I’d be part of the conversation. I haven’t been, so I assume it doesn’t hinge on that,” he added.

Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy released a statement clarifying that they too plan on moving ahead with their initiatives unless Sonnenberg and McNulty back down.

“We would be happy to meet with our opponents at the Secretary of State’s office to mutually withdraw all four initiatives at an agreed upon time,” said spokeswoman Mara Sheldon.

Grassroots activists are having none of the compromise.

“Any “compromise” spoken about in relation to this deal should appear in quotes,” said Sam Schabacker, director of Food and Water Watch in Colorado. “From what I’ve heard so far, this is a hollow compromise that does nothing to truly protect the hundreds of thousands of citizens concerned about the risks posed to their health and property by oil-and-gas development.

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