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Approval of fracking bans turns up the heat on Hickenlooper

Coloradans stage a protest of fracking near their homes during a meeting of the Democratic Governors Association in Aspen in July.

Coloradans stage a protest of fracking near their homes during a meeting of the Democratic Governors Association in Aspen in July.

DENVER — When voters rejected Amendment 66′s proposed income tax hike by a two-to-one margin on Tuesday, many observers called it a major defeat for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat seeking reelection next year.

But another set of votes are also a major setback for the governor.

When three of four northern Colorado cities voted in favor of moratoriums on oil and gas production work that relies on so-called fracking, it, too, served as another shot across the bow at Hickenlooper, a former geologist who has already sued the first city to enact such a ban and is widely perceived as an advocate for his former industry.

“The fracking issue certainly complicates Hickenlooper’s political fortunes,” said political analyst Eric Sondermann. “He has staked out some independent ground — to his credit, in my estimation — but it does pit him against a whole lot of his liberal, environmental, Democratic base.”

The votes to ban fracking by citizens in Boulder, Lafayette and Fort Collins on Tuesday serve to highlight an emerging confrontation between many left-leaning voters and the governor who will need their votes in 2014, when it’s increasingly likely they’ll also be voting on some sort of statewide fracking ban.

And it puts more pressure on Hickenlooper’s administration heading into the final stage of a rule-making process whereby the Air Quality Control Commission is about to approve a new set of regulations on the oil and gas industry to limit the industry’s impact on poor air quality by forcing it to more closely monitor greenhouse gas-causing emissions from thousands of well sites.

“The votes are more proof that Coloradans don’t trust the industry and are unsure if the governor and his administration will do what it takes to protect public health and the air we breathe,” Conservation Colorado’s Pete Maysmith told FOX31 Denver.

“The AQCC rule-making is a chance for the governor to show Coloradans he cares about their concerns and is serious about protecting public health and the environment.”

Environmentalists ripped the administration’s initial draft of those AQCC rules, which were released last month, arguing that they don’t do enough to regulate methane, one of the most dangerous chemicals contributing to climate change.

“Hickenlooper has to play his political cards very carefully to maintain his independent ground where he is and not totally antagonize his base,” Sondermann said.

Hickenlooper can take some solace in the fact that the one city that rejected a moratorium on fracking Tuesday, Broomfield, is more of a “swing” community with a mix of Republicans and Democrats and more representative of the state as a whole than, say, Fort Collins.

But overall the threat of a statewide ballot initiative in 2014 trying to ban fracking, which Hickenlooper most certainly does not want, is more real after Tuesday.

“There’s no easy way out of this dilemma for Hickenlooper,” Sondermann said.

On Thursday, FOX31 Denver asked Hickenlooper about the message sent by the approval of the fracking bans and how his administration might respond.

The governor talked his way around the question, offering a 90-second answer describing the inherent conflict between concerned residents and the state constitution, which protects the industry.

“There’s a number of people who just don’t want to see that activity close to where they live,” Hickenlooper said. “And the difficult thing, when I get a chance to talk to them, I say, listen, we have this thing, the split estate — somebody owns the surface, somebody else owns the mineral rights underneath and our state constitution guarantees those individuals who own mineral rights the opportunity to get access.

“That’s in the state constitution. Somehow we have to balance that against communities’ genuine desires, which I totally understand — they don’t want to see the tone of their community change.”

Hickenlooper also acknowledged the ongoing AQCC rule-making process.

“We continue to work relentlessly to make Colorado the number one state in the nation at creating a regulatory framework that puts the health of our citizens at the highest level possible,” he said. “We continue to work on that as we speak. I think that lets people calm down often, knowing that we are working against water pollution, air pollution, contamination of our soils.”

Environmentalists, most of whom support Hickenlooper, believe the governor could quell the rising anti-fracking insurrection by tightening up the air quality rules, especially as they pertain to methane capturing and leak detection and repair policies; the administration’s draft proposal would only force the industry to patrol well sites for leaks once or twice a year, but the environmentalists continue to push for required monthly inspections.

Hickenlooper has said publicly the state should have “zero tolerance” for methane emissions, and the CEO of Noble Energy, which operates around 40 percent of all oil and gas wells in Colorado, has echoed that sentiment.

Maysmith and other environmentalists want the administration to follow through, to “lean in and listen” to those concerned about oil and gas development just as Hickenlooper vowed to do with rural communities that expressed their displeasure with the legislature by bringing forth initiatives to secede from Colorado and form a 51st state.

“The governor has been saying the right things about reducing harmful ozone and methane pollution but the proof about how serious he is will be in these rules,” Maysmith said. “The governor and industry have said we need to get to zero tolerance on methane emissions, the time to do that is now.”

After a year of bruising battles at the Capitol and subsequent rebukes from voters in two recall elections and again on Tuesday night, the rulemaking offers Hickenlooper the chance for a political win heading into 2014, Sondermann believes.

“To the extent there are regulatory measures he can take to dampen down the opposition without violating his core approach to the issue, that makes sense to take those,” Sondermann said, noting that appeasing conservationists with tighter air quality rules would allow the governor to maintain his hard line stance against all-out municipal bans on fracking.

“I think maintaining some degree of independence from his own party, although it will cause him some headaches, come November I think it still serves him somewhat well of maintaining that brand as an independent guy,” Sondermann said.

“And I ultimately think the party will rally around him once the Republican opposition is clear.