DENVER — After he signed next year’s state budget into law, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was peppered with questions about whether or not lawmakers will attempt to pass a bill to address local control issues around oil and gas development before the legislative session ends next week.
Hickenlooper’s office has been involved in meetings for weeks now involving Democratic lawmakers and representatives of the state’s largest oil and gas operators who have discussed numerous draft bills, but time is running out to introduce legislation that would address the rights of local communities to have more control over oil and gas drilling.
Passing such a bill in the final days of the session is likely the only way to stop Boulder Congressman Jared Polis from pushing ahead with a series of ballot initiatives this fall that are certain to draw millions of dollars in outside spending and have some sort of impact on November’s mid-term election.
Asked point-blank if he thinks a bill will be introduced, Hickenlooper hedged: “I wouldn’t handicap it. 50-50.”
Hickenlooper, a former oil and gas industry geologist facing reelection in November, acknowledged the sentiments of people in Boulder and other northern Colorado communities where a fracking boom is encroaching on neighborhoods.
“There’s clear sentiment across the state that communities want a stronger voice in negotiating the circumstances by which someone gets access to those minerals,” he said.
Many Democrats, Hickenlooper included, would prefer to resolve the issue at the legislature, likely with a bill giving cities and counties more control over setbacks and inspections, rather than the ballot box.
And for good reason: not only would a new law be something lawmakers could revisit and change over time, the policy itself wouldn’t go nearly as far as Polis’s proposals, which would allow local communities to ban fracking outright.
“We are supportive of trying to get to a balance,” Hickenlooper said. “I think this is something that can be done legislatively, rather than in 30-second soundbites. Often times, if something like this ends up on the ballot, there will be $30-50 million spent on ads.
“I know that’s great for you guys,” Hickenlooper said, directly addressing the reporters in his office whose stations and newspapers would benefit from an influx of advertising revenue. “But it’s often not a great way to make difficult decisions that include lots of nuance and subtlety.
“I think we’re better served and I think the Colorado model is to get both sides together and hammer out a compromise that reflects the priorities that both sides hold.”
While oil and gas companies can exact more control over policy changes at the legislature, some of them are more inclined than others to negotiate.
Some “believe a fight is preferable on the substance”, one Capitol insider close to the negotiations told FOX31 Denver Wednesday. Others, meanwhile, have an incentive to continue this fight into the fall: the consultants who will be paid handsomely to run campaigns against the measures and partisan Republicans who believe the outside spending by the oil and gas industry may help Republican Cory Gardner win a U.S. Senate race that could dethrone Democratic Sen. Mark Udall and give the GOP a majority.
The money is already pouring in.
Coloradans for Responsible Reform, which includes the Denver Metro Chamber, Colorado Concern, the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, Action 22, Club 20 and Progressive 15, is re-activating and planning to invest in a campaign against the ballot measures.
The industry-funded group Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development has been active on that front for months already.
On the other side, the billionaire climate change activist Tom Steyer, is likely to spend millions to support Udall and possibly Polis’s local control ballot measures.
Steyer’s representatives were reportedly in Colorado just last week.