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Hickenlooper Nixes Special Session, Oil And Gas Battle Moves To The Ballot

Jim Hill

Governor John Hickenlooper has formally pulled the plug on the possibility of a special legislation session to consider stricter rules for the oil and gas industry. Hickenlooper said there weren't enough stakeholders on board for a bipartisan solution.

“We continue to believe that the right way to solve complex issues like these is through the legislative process and through transparent rule making,” Hickenlooper said.

The Governor and a broad coalition that included several large oil and gas companies such as Anadarko and Noble Energy had agreed to a compromise bill. It would've allowed local communities to increase the setback distance between drilling rigs and homes and schools, and enact tougher rules for noise and other disturbances.

“We have worked with a bipartisan coalition to explore a legislative compromise that would avoid a series of expensive and divisive ballot initiatives surrounding oil and gas development in Colorado,” Hickenlooper said.

Now it looks like the issue may be settled by voters.

Democratic U.S. Representative Jared Polis is financially backing two proposals, one would quadruple the current drilling setback distance. Supporters must gather more than 86,000 valid signatures by August 4 to make the November election ballot. Polis was involved in the special session negotiations and had pledged to drop his ballot proposals if state lawmakers passed a bill.

“My one goal is to find a solution that will allow my constituents to live safely in their homes, free from the fear of declining property values or unnecessary health risks, but also that will allow our state to continue to benefit from the oil and gas boom that brings jobs and increased energy security,” Polis said.

Some lawmakers in both parties felt Polis was essentially blackmailing them to pass a bill. Republican leaders said that was a critical roadblock to a legislative compromise.

“Polis’ immature ‘take it or leave it’ approach to negotiating a solution left us out in the cold,” said Representative Frank McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch). “Now Polis’ only option to avoid hurting families and devastating our communities is to withdraw his energy ban ballot initiatives and end his bullying tactics.”

But others praised Polis for pushing negotiations forward.

“We got farther because of him than we would have,” said House Majority Leader Dicky Lee Hullinghorst (D-Boulder) who was involved in the negotiations.

Hullinghorst said her first choice was a special session and she’s disappointed it didn't work out. She also said she will support the ballot questions but hasn't decided whether to campaign for them.

“I’m not giving up," Hullinghorst said. "This is a vital issue to communities and families.”

A large group is already lining up to oppose the measures, from the energy industry and other business groups, to the Governor and members of Congress. They argue Colorado already has stringent energy regulations.

It’s expected to be a costly and hard fought campaign come November.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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