Oil and gas task force offers few solutions to local control issue

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DENVER — After half a year of meetings, all the state’s oil and gas task force could agree on to address the question of local control was the low-hanging fruit.

Nine of some 40 policy proposals received the required support from two-thirds of the task force, on which the oil and gas industry and a contingent of pro-local control homeowners and conservations were equally represented.

Those ideas, which the Gov. John Hickenlooper can choose to enact largely in the regulatory arena without lawmaker approval, include allowing local communities to offer input earlier in the process; increasing staff at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry; creating an information clearing house; and taking steps to include truck traffic around well sites.

“Five months after the Governor’s Oil and Gas Task Force convened, the recommendations put forward lack the substance needed to protect Coloradans and our environment from drilling and fracking,” said Conservation Colorado’s Pete Maysmith.

“Today’s outcome had some gravy, but forgot the meat and potatoes. This despite the fact the Task Force heard loud and clearly from Coloradans in communities across the state that are being impacted; from to Durango to Rifle to Greeley — communities are asking for something to be done.”

Hickenlooper and the industry’s main trade group viewed the recommendations more favorably, praising the task force, noting that seven of the nine policies approved won unanimous support.

“Their determination and willingness to really hear each other was remarkable, and their recommendations are significant in both breadth and the level of consensus they achieved,” Hickenlooper said in a statement Tuesday night. “They made undeniable progress for all of Colorado today and we are extremely grateful for their work.”

While local control advocates are upset cities and counties won’t have a way to prevent drilling altogether, Hickenlooper and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association view a recommendation to enhance communication between local governments and oil and gas companies when it comes to siting large, multi-well drilling locations as a step forward.

“Today the task force recommended changes that will enhance the role of local governments,” said Tisha Schuller, president and CEO of COGA. “The recommendation will allow conflicts to be worked out earlier while also working to ensure local government needs are addressed in the state permitting process. That’s a positive move forward.

“We welcome community engagement and believe the more information that Coloradans have about oil and gas development, the more they will be open to developing our natural resources in a safe and efficient manner.”

But environmentalists and local control advocates panned the recommendations, warning that new ballot measures aimed at expanding local control — similar to those the task force was created to avoid — may be in the offing come 2016.

“We are deeply disappointed in the final recommendations of the Governor’s Oil and Task Force,” said Karen Sjoberg with the group Citizens For Clean Air.  “Five months ago it was formed to find a solution to ongoing issues our communities are facing from oil and gas development.  While some of the measures passed will help on the margins they do not get at the heart of the issue of providing meaningful protections for Colorado communities and our clean air.

“The task force heard from thousands of citizens, local government officials and other stakeholders imploring them to address the very real impacts we are seeing from this industrial activity – that need has not been addressed through these recommendations.”

Hickenlooper formed the task force in August as an eleventh hour solution to a looming political problem: a series of local control ballot measures being backed by Congressman Jared Polis, D-Boulder.

Polis agreed to pull the measures, averting a messy and expensive political fight, when Hickenlooper formed the task force and dropped the state’s lawsuit against the city of Longmont, where voters approved a moratorium on fracking.

“I’m disappointed but not surprised that the Task Force has failed,” said Jim Ramey, with the group Citizens For a Healthy Community. “The Task Force failed to address the pressing issues that resulting in its creation – increased setbacks between drilling locations and homes and schools, as well as increased local government control over oil and gas operations.

“Once again, we saw the oil and gas industry oppose common-sense safeguards and improvements to Colorado’s rules and laws. The heavy-handed approach by the oil and gas industry in Colorado just doesn’t work.  People won’t stand for it, and I expect they’ll carry protective solutions to the ballot box in 2016.”