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Polis gives in, announces compromise with Hickenlooper on oil, gas control

DENVER — At the last possible moment, Jared Polis has blinked.

The Boulder congressman, who was prepared to turn in more than 200,000 signatures Monday afternoon in support of two ballot measures that would have allowed far greater local control of Colorado’s oil and gas industry, reached an agreement over the weekend to stand down on the initiatives and allow a broader stakeholder process to take place.

Facing mounting pressure from a coalition of business and industry groups, mainstream environmental groups and the state’s Democratic political establishment, Polis continued to negotiate over the weekend with Gov. John Hickenlooper, who ramped up the pressure on Polis last month when he pulled the plug on a possible special legislative session to pass a local control compromise.

Polis and Hickenlooper announced the agreement during a joint news conference at the state capitol. It includes the formation of a task force of 18 members to craft regulations to minimize conflicts over the siting of oil and gas facilities in Colorado.

The task force is to be chaired by La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt and XTO Energy President Randy Cleveland.

It will take input from the oil and gas industry, business groups and the thousands of property owners who want more of a say when oil and gas development nears their homes.

Hickenlooper also announced that he is dropping the state’s lawsuit against Longmont, challenging the city’s voter-approved ban on fracking.

Polis said he is withdrawing two initiatives aimed at tightening controls over the industry and two pro-industry initiatives.  Hickenlooper called on “everyone to pull down four initiatives on this topic.”

Polis requested that the industry withdraw two of its own initiatives: Initiative 121, which stipulates that communities that limit oil and gas activity would be prohibited from receiving state severance tax revenues from oil and gas development; and Initiative 137, which would require the fiscal impact of each initiative be estimated earlier in the process and included in the Colorado Blue Book.

Backers of those initiatives submitted signatures ahead of Monday’s deadline but may be willing to drop them before the ballot is finalized in September.

Polis said the agreement “places citizens directly at the negotiating table on equal footing with the oil and gas industry, directly negotiating to protect their property rights, clean air and water quality.”

Earlier this year, after four of the five largest cities in his congressional district had voted to ban fracking, Polis put his significant financial resources behind a campaign to pass a handful of ballot initiatives, two of which are still alive to make the November ballot: Initiative 88, which would quadruple Colorado’s current minimum 500-foot setback between drilling wells and homes and make it a mandatory 2,000 feet; and Initiative 89, which would assert Coloradans’ right to clean air, water and scenic values.

After Polis worked with Hickenlooper to broaden support for a legislative compromise that failed to garner enough support from state lawmakers — no Republicans were willing to support it, and several Democrats also had concerns — to warrant a special session, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, a strong conservationist, came out against the initiatives, as did Hickenlooper and Democratic congressional candidate Andrew Romanoff.

At the time Polis insisted that no one had asked him outright to withdraw the initiatives; but within a week, Vital for Colorado, a business group with more than 2,700 members, officially made the request.

Sources tell FOX31 Denver that Polis has been lobbied privately by a number of environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, to stand down.

The Sierra Club issued a statement Monday that reads in part: “The Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter had endorsed Congressman Polis’ initiatives to limit fracking prior to today’s announcement by Governor Hickenlooper and Representative Polis. Many Sierra Club members and supporters were directly collecting signatures for initiatives 88 and 89. The Sierra Club continues to stand behind Colorado communities and their right to regulate, zone, or ban fracking altogether. Public and environmental wellbeing should always come before the interests of the oil and gas industry. The Sierra Club is currently reviewing the proposed “deal,” and was not involved in negotiating it or asking Polis to drop his initiatives.”

For months already, the industry has been engaged in an expensive campaign to educate Colorado voters about fracking and to steer them toward opposing Polis’ initiatives.

Many Democratic insiders have openly worried that the industry’s campaign against the initiatives would effectively pump another $10 million into the GOP field operation this fall, likely imperiling Udall and Romanoff’s chances of victory.