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Last-Minute Bargain Struck On Colorado Oil And Gas Control

Bente Birkeland
Congressman Jared Polis and Governor John Hickenlooper announce a deal on oil and gas to avoid a costly fight at the ballot box.

In a news conference Monday Governor John Hickenlooper, alongside Democratic Congressman Jared Polis and other supporters, announced a deal on local control for oil and gas, heading off a showdown on the November ballot.

Polis said he would call on the withdrawal of two anti-fracking ballot initiatives he’s backing so the state can try to craft a legislative solution. He said he made the decision in the last few days, “I’ve said that from the very start my personal preference is to address these issues legislatively.”

In addition, Governor John Hickenlooper announced the creation of an 18-member task force that will make recommendations for new oil and gas rules leading into next legislative session. The task force will include members from local government, oil and gas, agriculture, homebuilders and environmentalists.

“You have all the interests at the table, to work through the differences and difficulties and you figure out what is a compromise that serves all parties,” Hickenlooper said.

The Democratic controlled state legislature tried to come up with a compromise bill during the 2014 session but failed to reach an agreement. Hickenlooper also attempted to broker a compromise and even considered a special legislative session to avoid a costly fight at the ballot box.

“You have no idea what happens when you put a ballot measure out there,” said Craig Hughes a partner with Hilltop Public Solutions and former adviser to President Barack Obama’s Colorado campaign.

“I equate it to a hand grenade that you throw out into a crowded room and you wait to see what happens when the shrapnel flies. It was a great risk on all sides. It could’ve helped Democratic turnout particularly in Boulder and Larimer county. It could’ve helped Republican turnout especially on the eastern plains and western slope,” Hughes said.

The stakes were clear. Colorado is home to one of the most competitive U.S. Senate races in the country, and Governor Hickenlooper is up for re-election.

While many wanted to avoid an oil an gas ballot fight, it’s not a done deal yet. Two pro-industry proposals are still moving forward, including Initiative 121 which would prevent communities that ban oil and gas development from receiving revenues from the industry. State Representative Frank McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch), a backer of that proposal, is confident in its chances. [Ed. Note: McNulty has now moved to suspend the campaign on his initiative, please see the update below]

“It is important for communities to understand that responsible oil and gas development funds our schools, roads and fire stations,” said McNulty. “Energy bans do nothing but shrink the pot of funding available for those services. That's a big reason you saw Loveland reject an energy ban earlier this summer. This is the reason we believe our initiative will be approved this November."

The group has already turned in 138,000 signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office, well above the 86,105 threshold required to get  a measure on the ballot.

Safe. Clean. Colorado is also expected to deliver petitions for Initiatives 88 and 89. The Polis-backed measures would create an environmental bill of rights and allow communities to ban fracking. Polis said he hopes the initiatives will be withdrawn but only if the pro-industry ballot measures are also taken off the table simultaneously.

“I would expect that the two would occur together if they’re going to occur,” said Polis.

Also part of the deal, Governor John Hickenlooper is directing the state to drop its lawsuit against the city of Longmont over local oil and gas rules that the state argued infringed on Colorado’s right to manage the resource. Polis said if lawmakers can’t reach a deal next session he’s more than willing to put something before voters in 2016.

Update 8.5.2014 - Representative Frank McNulty has suspended the campaign behind Initiative 121. In a news release [.pdf] both he and Representative Jerry Sonnenberg said they would withdraw the initiative "on news that Polis was no longer moving forward" with his initiatives.

"It’s now up to Polis to make good on his promise to end his economic brinkmanship, as he promised he would earlier today,” McNulty said in the same release.

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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