Stakeholder group may draft recommendations for state legislature on local control; community conservation groups feel left out of ‘secret’ deal
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — A new commission formed to address fracking concerns will be able to make recommendations to the Colorado Legislature on issues related to local control over industrial fossil fuel extraction. But so far, the group doesn’t have a timetable or any other specific targets.
Governor John Hickenlooper announced the 18-member group and called for withdrawal of various fracking-related ballot measures. The environmental community has indicated it will withdraw its ballot initiative, which would have clarified the rights of local communities to regulate potentially harmful fracking, said Earthworks Oil & Gas Accountability Project Director Bruce Baizel.
The oil and gas industry hasn’t yet announced whether it will withdraw its ballot measures, Baizel said Monday afternoon.
While expressing disappointment in the withdrawal of the ballot measures, Baizel acknowledged that the initiatives could have muddied the legal waters even more. Passage of an anti-fracking ballot measure probably would have resulted in more years of uncertainty, he said.
Some mainstream conservation groups praised the agreement as a step forward.
“Conservation Colorado thank U.S. Congressman Jared Polis and Governor Hickenlooper for their announcement today to cease ballot initiative efforts and work together towards long term solutions around issues of local control and oil and gas development,” said Pete Maysmith, the group’s director.
Other groups were not so sure about the deal and made it clear that the option of a ballot measure is still on the table, including the Sierra Club, which has been helping in the petition efforts to get fracking initiatives on the ballot.
“The Sierra Club continues to stand behind Colorado communities and their right to regulate, zone, or ban fracking altogether. Public and environmental well-being should always come before the interests of the oil and gas industry,” said Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter director Joshua Ruschhaupt.
“The Sierra Club is currently reviewing the proposed deal, and was not involved in negotiating it or asking Polis to drop his initiatives,” Ruschhaupt continued. “If a stakeholder group is going to make legislative recommendations on oil and gas industry regulations, these recommendations must include protecting human health, safety, and welfare, as well as public lands and endangered species.
“We hope that oil and gas regulatory agencies and all stakeholder groups, including the one proposed, are transparent and open to public input and review. Bias that fosters an inherently damaging industry is not acceptable,” he said.
“This deal will not protect Colorado communities, does not promote real local control, and will not make fracking any less of a hazard for our water, our air and our health. This hollow compromise may remove fracking from the state ballot this November, but it doesn’t solve any problems. It creates an unelected task force and guarantees that concern among voters about fracking will continue to escalate, and that fracking will continue to be a significant statewide issue our officials must address,” said Sam Schabacker, western region director with Food & Water Watch.
Tisha Schuller, President and CEO, Colorado Oil & Gas Association:
The Colorado Oil and Gas Association acknowledged that the commission will have to tackle tough questions relating to local control of fracking.
“These issues are complex and must include a wide range of stakeholders to find common ground with workable solutions. We are grateful that such a diverse group of stakeholders from around Colorado came to together to support the oil and gas industry, which is critical to overall economic health of our state,” said COGA CEO and president Tisha Schuller. “It is now time to get back to the important work of actually engaging with our communities to find localized solutions.”
If the commission can make recommendations to the State Legislature, and lawmakers act on the advice, it could resolved the ongoing question of how local communities can protect themselves from toxic air pollution, the possibility of drinking water contamination and other concerns related to exploitation of fossil fuels.
According to the release from Hickenlooper’s office, the goal of the task force is to find ways to “minimize land use conflicts that can occur when siting oil and gas facilities near homes, schools, businesses and recreational areas.”
“The work of this task force will provide an alternative to ballot initiatives that, if successful, would have regulated the oil and gas industry through the rigidity of Constitutional amendments and posed a significant threat to Colorado’s economy. This approach will put the matter in the hands of a balanced group of thoughtful community leaders, business representatives and citizens who can advise the legislature and the executive branch on the best path forward,” Hickenlooper said.
The 18-member task force, chaired by La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt and Randy Cleveland, president of XTO Energy, Inc., will 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.
“Today’s announcement is a victory for the people of Colorado and the movement to enact sensible fracking regulations,” said Congressman Jared Polis, who had been backing an environmentally focused ballot initiative.
“For the first time, citizens will be on equal footing to the oil and gas industry, and able to negotiate directly for regulations that protect property rights, homes values, clean water, and air quality. I am pleased that we were able to come together, and today’s agreement is meaningful progress toward sensible fracking regulations.”
In a good faith effort to help bring parties together to resolve these issues, Hickenlooper announced that he would ask the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to dismiss the Longmont litigation challenging the ordinance and called upon all parties to pull down ballot initiatives on this topic.
Any constitutional language or laws passed by the State Legislature would mainly affect areas that are already impacted by fossil fuel development. The industry isn’t expanding significantly into new territory, except perhaps around North Park and South Park, where stakeholders are developing a master leasing plan.