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Special legislative session a possibility as local control talks continue

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DENVER — As lawmakers gathered at the Capitol Thursday to recap the 120-day legislation session that adjourned a day earlier, much of the discussion focused on the possibility of a special session next month to resolve local control issues around oil and gas drilling in order to head off a ballot measure fight this fall.

For more than a month, various stakeholders have been working on a possible bill that would be acceptable to all sides: the oil and gas industry, Gov. John Hickenlooper, House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst and Congressman Jared Polis, who is funding the ballot initiative that would allow local communities to ban fracking outright.

Hullinghorst announced Monday, the latest possible day to introduce a bill in time for it to pass by the end of session on Wednesday, that negotiations had failed to produce a compromise that could get the votes it needs to become a law — “33-18-1”, as lawmakers say, referring to the 33 House votes, 18 Senate votes needed to get a bill to a supportive governor who will sign it.

On Wednesday, as lawmakers met with reporters to take stock of the session as a whole, Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, said that talks were progressing.

“I’m optimistic we’re getting closer to an agreement,” she said. “And if there is one, I think we will probably see a special session.”

Hickenlooper, who held his own post-session media availability Thursday afternoon, told reporters the odds of calling a special session to settle the issue and avoid a ballot measure fight are roughly “50-50”; but he noted that recent discussions have seen the different sides move closer toward a deal.

“We made tremendous progress and there was enough progress that it’s worth continuing to talk and try and work through that split,” Hickenlooper said. “But there’s no point in calling a special session unless you get to some place.

“The longer people stay at the table discussing, both sides generally become a little more flexible and more open to a compromise on something they weren’t originally okay with. They see the other side giving and they tend to move a little bit too. We definitely saw that in the last week and a half.”

FOX31 Denver has also learned that an informal group of disparate stakeholders, including representatives from Polis’s office, has been formed to coordinate efforts to encourage a special session, should negotiations progress.

Noble Energy, the largest oil and gas operator in Colorado, continues to push hard for a deal to avoid a ballot measure fight, according to multiple sources. Ted Brown, Noble’s CEO and other executives, were at the Capitol Thursday meeting with Senate President Morgan Carroll.

“What a lot of folks are starting to recognize is that even if you win and defeat this ballot measure, you may have to fight another one down the road,” one member of the working group told FOX31 Denver. “If you’re trying to pass a ballot measure, you only have to win one time. If we can find a deal and take away the incentive for these proposals to ban drilling, then everybody can win now and we can settle this.”

Should a ballot measure go forward, it’s certain draw close to $50 million in outside spending on both sides this fall, which could impact Colorado’s top-tier U.S. Senate race between Democratic Sen. Mark Udall and Republican Congressman Cory Gardner. While it’s unclear whether the ballot fight would help either side, some Republicans are reluctant to get behind a deal, which they see as an effort to help Udall’s chances for reelection.

“I’m not saying there aren’t folks in my caucus who wouldn’t listen to a compromise,” said House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, Thursday. “But I’ve got other folks in there who say, ‘No way, let’s fight it out’.”

Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, was the first Republican last week to publicly state his support for a bipartisan legislative compromise as a way to avoid risking the passage of Polis’s measure, which he worries would hurt the oil and gas industry.

Also Thursday, the group Food and Water Watch pulled its ballot measure around restricting oil and gas drilling, leaving only the Polis initiatives and one other measure that’s unlikely to garner much support.

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