Deal reached to keep fracking off Colorado ballot

Task force may address concerns

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A political crisis in the swing state of Colorado may have been averted — unless a compromise announced Monday falls apart.

With the races for governor and U.S. Senate heating up, two anti-fracking initiatives headed for Colorado’s November ballot were creating what political consultants hate most in an election year: uncertainty.

Proponents of the ballot measures championed by Democratic Rep. Jared Polis have been furiously gathering the more than 86,105 signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot and had planned to deliver them to Colorado’s secretary of state by Monday’s deadline. The oil and gas industry and allied business groups — along with Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who feared a devastating impact on Colorado’s economy — had been gearing up for a fierce fight that could cost as much as $50 million to turn out voters this fall.

But after secret talks between Mr. Polis and Mr. Hickenlooper at the 11th hour, a compromise that had been so elusive for months materialized.

In a joint news conference with Mr. Polis, Mr. Hickenlooper announced Monday that he was creating a task force to devise an alternative to the ballot measures. The task force would address Coloradans’ concerns about the impact of hydraulic fracturing — a technique in which water, sand and chemicals are injected into the ground at high pressure to extract oil and gas. Mr. Polis, in turn, said he would urge the committees pushing the anti-fracking ballot measures to stand down.

The compromise seemed somewhat tenuous, however. After the news conference, sources on both sides said it was not a done deal.

Proponents of the measures to curb fracking say they have gathered more than enough signatures to qualify both initiatives for the ballot — and still plan to deliver them to the Colorado secretary of state. The group wants assurances from the oil and gas industry that it will withdraw backing for two pro-fracking initiatives that could also be on Colorado’s November ballot.

“Until we receive confirmation that industry has withdrawn initiatives 121 and 137” — the pro-fracking ballot initiatives — “our campaign is moving forward,” Mara Sheldon, spokeswoman for Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, said in a statement. “We would be happy to meet with our opponents at the secretary of state’s office to mutually withdraw all four initiatives at an agreed-upon time.”

Opponents of the anti-fracking initiatives have argued that they would amount to a backdoor ban on hydraulic fracturing. Current Colorado law requires new oil and gas wells to be set back 500 feet from an occupied structure. One of the proposed measures would expand that buffer to 2,000 feet. Opponents said that would dramatically limit the number of available drilling sites, noting that the current buffer affects an 18-acre area, but a 2,000-foot setback would impact a 288-acre area.

Industry and business interests were similarly concerned about the second proposed ballot measure, championed by Mr. Polis. It would insert an environmental bill of rights into the state’s constitution in an effort to give communities greater control of the rapid expansion of fracking across Colorado. The number of active oil wells in Colorado has more than doubled over the past decade, according to data from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Five Colorado towns have banned fracking since 2012. Longmont was the first, but a Boulder County District Court judge struck down the city’s fracking ban in late July, ruling that it conflicted with the state’s authority to regulate the practice. (In her ruling, Judge D.D. Mallard said Longmont could maintain its ban while considering an appeal.)

Mr. Hickenlooper had infuriated some fracking foes by allowing the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry, to join the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s lawsuit to overturn Longmont’s ban.

As part of the compromise, Mr. Hickenlooper said he would urge the commission “to dismiss the Longmont litigation” challenging the city’s fracking ban. The effect of the governor’s statement on the lawsuit remained unclear Monday.

Mr. Hickenlooper’s office said the new 18-member task force would “represent the broad interests of those involved in responsible oil and gas development, including members of the oil and gas industry, agricultural industry, the home-building industry, the conservation community, local governments and civic leaders.”

colorado - United States - North America - John Hickenlooper - Mark Udall - Colorado state government - Jared Polis - Cory Gardner - Longmont


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