Hickenlooper issues executive order on fracking

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DENVER — Gov. John Hickenlooper, already having irked Colorado environmentalists this week for voicing a radio ad in favor of hydraulic fracturing on behalf of the state’s oil and gas industry, issued an executive order Wednesday afternoon creating a task force to determine whether the state or local cities and counties have control over fracking operations in the state.

“This is an important step to better define state and local jurisdiction regulatory structures as Colorado’s oil and gas industry continues to grow,” Hickenlooper said in a statement.

“We want to protect public health, the environment and wildlife and to avoid duplication and conflict between different regulations of oil and gas activities. We expect these efforts to also help foster a climate that encourages responsible development and enhances existing cooperation and coordination between state and local government.”

The order comes after the town of Erie voted Tuesday night to draft an emergency 180-day moratorium on fracking, a common process used by oil and gas companies to loosen mineral reserves for extraction by shooting a mix of water, sand and chemicals more than mile beneath the surface.

The town had rejected a moratorium proposal a month ago, but reversed course based largely on a report last week from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that showed levels of propane — a chemical used in fracking — 10 times higher in Erie than in other cities.

Environmentalists have long argued that fracking is contaminating groundwater and causing health problems for people living nearby.

Erie is located on the edge of the Wattenberg Field, where Anadarko Petroleum, among other oil and gas companies, is planning a major expansion of drilling operations in the next few years.

“Industry, the State and local jurisdictions successfully operate within the perameters established by the courts,” said Hickenlooper in the executive order letter. “Occasionally, however, parties disagree whether a local rule is in conflict with a state rule. Parties hesitate to pursue resolution in court because proving operational conflict is an adversarial, cumbersome, time-consuming, and expensive process.

“It is in the interest of all parties to seek ways in which the concerns of local jurisdictions, operators and the State can be addressed collaboratively.”

The Task Force created by the order will be headed up by Mike King, the executive director of the Dept. of Natural Resources and include representatives from the oil and gas and environmental communities.

Hickenlooper is asking that the group’s findings and recommendations be submitted by April 18, just a few weeks before the legislative session wraps up.

According to a press release, Hickenlooper crafted the executive order with input from Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, and House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch.

Sources tell FOX31 that McNulty had been pushing to run a bill that would have given legal precedence to state regulations over any local moratoriums — and that the executive order was enough to hold him, and that potential legislation, at bay for the time being.

Last year, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission passed a new rule forcing oil and gas companies to disclose more of the chemicals used in their hydraulic fractuing processes — a rule that has the support of the industry and the environmental lobby that Hickenlooper has heralded as an illustration of how competing interests often find common ground in Colorado.

This week, however, he irked environmentalists for stating in a radio ad paid for by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association that “we have not had one instance of groundwater contamination associated with drilling and hydraulic fracturing” since the state’s last overhaul of oil and gas rules back in 2008.

Thirteen environmental groups sent Hickenlooper a letter on Monday disputing that assessment and asking COGA to take the ad off the air.