Hickenlooper brokers local control compromise between Polis, industry; now working to gauge support

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DENVER — Congressman Jared Polis appears to have reached an agreement with Gov. John Hickenlooper and industry members including the state’s two largest oil and gas operators over legislation that will cede more control of drilling to local communities.

The question now is whether those stakeholders can get broader support, from the industry and from state lawmakers needed to pass a draft bill now being circulated in a special session later this month.

The proposal itself would allow local communities to pass their own laws related to extended setbacks for wells (beyond the state’s current 500 foot requirement) and noise ordinances but not to go as far as banning fracking outright, according to sources close to the process.

In exchange, Polis, D-Boulder, has agreed not to pursue ballot initiatives related to local control of oil and gas operations through the 2018 election.

The Hickenlooper administration, along with Anadarko and Noble and those who have agreed to the draft bill, will work through the weekend to try to broaden the coalition of supporters within the industry and to gauge whether they have the votes needed to pass the bill in a special session.

The deal is the result of almost two months of difficult negotiations led by Hickenlooper’s office that saw both sides attempting to balance real-world consequences on Colorado homeowners and the state’s booming energy sector with very real political implications in the run-up to November’s midterm elections.

Polis, who represents four of the five Colorado cities that have already voted to ban fracking, decided earlier this year to put his significant personal wealth behind a handful of ballot initiatives that sought to impose longer setbacks and to give local communities the right to control and even ban fracking outright.

That outraged the oil and gas industry along with a number of Democrats, who worried that Sen. Mark Udall, up for reelection this fall, could be collateral damage as a result of the forthcoming campaign spending–estimates put the total around $50 million–by the industry and business-backed groups to defeat Polis’s measures.

While many Republicans, motivated by an opportunity to hurt Udall or resentment of Polis, who some likened to a hostage taker, were reluctant to negotiate, the two largest operators in the state, Noble and Anadarko, came to the table in part out of loyalty to the Hickenlooper administration and largely out of fear that Polis’s measures, should they pass, could seriously impact the industry’s bottom line.

Negotiations were long and difficult and the legislative session came to an end last month without enough progress to rush through a bill in its final days.

Even after Hickenlooper’s office put its own policy proposal on the table last week, neither the industry nor Polis’s team were quick to embrace it, neither side wanting to blink first.

But with a tentative time frame making Monday, June 9 the target date for a special legislative session to begin, the stalemate finally started to soften this week.

One source tells FOX31 Denver that it was Polis who finally agreed to Anadarko’s proposed language.

“I’m happy with the latest draft of the local control bill and with the good faith efforts of stakeholders including representatives of the Hickenlooper administration, the oil and gas community, the conservation community, local governments and others,” said House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, the state lawmaker most closely involved in the ongoing negotiations.

“As we continue our outreach to stakeholders, I’m optimistic that these extended negotiations will come to a successful conclusion.”

Any deal agreed to by Hickenlooper, Polis, Andarko and Noble must, of course, pass the House and Senate; and the Senate, where Democrats hold just an 18-17 majority, is the trickier task.

“I sure hope they’ve made sure that Cheri [Jahn], Mary [Hodge] and Lois [Tochtrop] will vote for this,” said Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, alluding to the three Democratic swing votes in the chamber who are strong supporters of the oil and gas industry and aren’t afraid to vote against senate Democratic leadership’s wishes.

“Because I don’t think any Senate Republican is going to vote for a deal to buy off Jared Polis.”

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