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[UPDATED] Hickenlooper Pushes for Settlement in Longmont Drilling Dispute

Kirk Siegler

Governor John Hickenlooper says he’s hopeful the state can reach a settlement with Longmont in a legal battle over the city’s new regulations that ban oil and gas drilling in residential neighborhoods.

Speaking Wednesday at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s annual meeting in downtown Denver, the Governor warned a protracted legal battle would be costly for both sides. 

His administration sued Longmont late last month arguing the Colorado Oil and Gas act gives the state the sole purview to regulate drilling.

"We literally begged Longmont not to go forward with their rather strongly worded, and I think to a certain extent too forceful, new regulations," Hickenlooper said. 

Drilling has boomed lately on the eastern edge of Longmont which lies above the lucrative Niobrara shale formation.  The city passed its new laws amid concerns the industrial activity is too close to homes and schools.  Longmont officials have said the new laws are in the best interest of their community, and a spokesman for the city declined to comment further Thursday citing the litigation. 

Still, in an interview after the panel, Governor Hickenlooper was optimistic the dispute could be settled out of court. 

"I’m a big believer in local control," the Democrat said. "Nothing causes me more pain, when we had to make this decision, literally, I laid awake at night."

But Hickenlooper says state oil and gas law already allows for flexibility to address the city and its residents’ concerns.  His administration did usher through a requirement last year that the ingredients used in fracking fluids be disclosed to the public.  That’s on top of a controversial overhaul of regulations to better protect water and public health by his predecessor Governor Bill Ritter.   

"And for whatever reason that wasn’t sufficient," Hickenlooper said. "They wanted a black and white, they wanted a blanket, no fracking."

Fracking refers to the pumping of water and chemicals into the ground to break up tight-rock formations in order to unlock oil and gas reserves.

Since becoming Governor, Hickenlooper has been steadfast the process does not pose a risk to ground water. He told the COGA audience the state has tested some 6,500 oil and gas wells and found NO instances of groundwater contamination. 

But that doesn’t account for surface spills, say environmental groups, who also note Colorado has some 47,000 active oil and gas wells. 

Outside the conference, protester and anti-fracking activist Diana Caile said Coloradans aren’t getting "honest information" from state leaders.

"The state’s not regulating it, and in fact Governor Hickenlooper, who we like to call Governor Frackenlooper, as a representative of the state, he’s telling people that there’s no instances of contamination," Caile said.

Caile, who lives in Boulder County, helped hand-deliver reports and studies to the Governor’s office documenting what she says are numerous cases of ground and air pollution at fracking sites.

"In Longmont, they simply don’t want drilling in residential neighborhoods," she said. "That sounds really reasonable to me, I wouldn’t want it near my house, I wouldn’t want it near my kids, I wouldn’t want it near my kids’ schools." 

Some of the protesters are also involved with a separate, citizens’ effort to ask Longmont voters to completely ban fracking this fall, and many here want the governor to come see the fracking up close, in their communities along the northern Front Range. 

Back inside, Governor Hickenlooper said he has plans to do just that.

"I’m definitely going to get up there and see them," he said. "For obvious reasons, we’ve had fires and shootings and all kinds of issues, but I am eager to get there and just try to listen and hear exactly, because I’ve read what they sent and I’ve read what they said and it just doesn’t seem to make sense to me so I just need to listen more."

Whether the Governor can broker another compromise on this thorny issue, as he did on fracking fluid disclosure, is a question that could be answered in the weeks ahead – especially as it becomes clearer whether the state and Longmont are headed for a settlement, or a prolonged legal battle.  SOQ.


Earlier: Governor Hickenlooper addressed the issue on a panel at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s annual conference in Denver Wednesday.  He said a prolonged legal battle would be costly for both sides, and adding state law already gives the flexibility to address concerns like those being raised in Longmont.

"I think there’s got to be a limit to it, and we literally begged Longmont not to go forward with their strongly worded, and to a certain extent, too forceful, new regulations," HIckenlooper said.   

Drilling has boomed in Longmont lately on the eastern side of the city and some have complained the industrial process doesn’t belong in an urban area.  The state’s recent lawsuit is seen as unprecedented when it comes to clashes between the state and local governments on oil and gas drilling. 

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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