Long list for gas-oil panel

Massive interest, political hurdles delay finalization

DENVER – The finalization of a task force charged with making recommendations about gas and oil regulations has been delayed by an outpouring of interest.

La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt, a Democrat from Durango who has been appointed chairwoman of the task force, said Gov. John Hickenlooper had hoped to make the announcement last week, but an onslaught of applications delayed the process. The new hope is for an announcement about the membership this week.

“It’s proven to be a more difficult task because so many qualified folks applied,” Lachelt said.

The governor’s office said that about 175 names from across the state have been submitted for three respective categories: people directly effected by gas and oil activities, such as homeowners and local governments; gas and oil industry representatives; and civic leaders. The governor’s office will pick six people from each category.

The task force was announced Aug. 4 amid a political battle surrounding two ballot initiatives funded by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder. In a grand bargain, Polis agreed to drop his ballot drive in exchange for the task force.

Also part of the deal, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission dropped a lawsuit against Longmont for enacting rules and regulations that overstepped the state’s authority, and two competing industry-friendly ballot initiatives were dropped by proponents.

Meeting dates for the task force have not been set, but Lachelt is hoping to begin meetings at the end of the month. Meetings are likely to last through the remainder of the year. Lachelt has recommended that hearings be held in parts of the state where gas and oil activities are the highest, such as Southwest Colorado.

She said Hickenlooper still has not outlined the mission of the task force, though she expects to focus on issues surrounding local control.

Polis’ initiatives would have increased setbacks of wells from 500 to 2,000 feet and authorized local governments to enact rules and regulations more stringent than that of the state.

“The commission should come up with legislative recommendations that clarify, and in some cases expand, the authority of local governments to prevent and minimize oil and gas impacts on communities,” said Lachelt, who has been working on gas and oil accountability in Southwest Colorado for more than 25 years.

Task force members will have to navigate a political maze, balancing the interests of local-control supporters, the industry and elected officials. The Legislature will have the final call on any legislative recommendations, though the task force could recommend regulatory solutions that bypass the legislature.

Hickenlooper, a Democrat who is facing re-election, already has found the task force to be politically challenging. In a media availability Aug. 6, Hickenlooper said of the task force: “Its success is dependent upon it ending in regulation.”

That comment prompted a response from Republicans, who said Hickenlooper backtracked in a later interview with Colorado Community Media.

“We all know that’s the point of the commission, but Hickenlooper actually flat-out admitting it was the goal was a big development,” said Matt Connelly, spokesman for the Colorado Republican Committee.

Lachelt acknowledged that it will be difficult to manage so many expectations, along with the desires of the 100 members of the Legislature who likely will be called on to act on recommendations come January.

“The discussion will take us down a lot of roads in the next five months on the commission, and it could end in deadlock and gridlock, but I think that we need to realize that we either deal with it here, or the voters will deal with it,” Lachelt said.

Rick Ridder, a strategist for Coloradans for Local Control, which pushed the two Polis-backed ballot questions, said he is hopeful that the task force will be able to make recommendations without too much grandstanding.

“We have a long way to go, and there’s always jockeying going forward, but I’m sure that it will work out,” Ridder said.

He said Coloradans for Local Control is not actively engaged in the task force process.

“We certainly hope and expect that there will be homeowners who were involved in the campaign ... fully represented on the panel,” Ridder said.

“There are a number of people ... that are highly familiar with the repercussions of fracking ... that are going to be more than adequate spokespeople,” he added.

On the other side of the debate, the gas and oil industry is hopeful that bringing all sides together can result in a fair compromise.

“Together, citizens, the energy industry and business community came together to forge this compromise,” said Jon Haubert, spokesman for Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, or CRED, an organization founded by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and Noble Energy, two of the state’s larger developers that have been involved in negotiations since the beginning. “As this new task force begins, the conversation around responsible energy production continues and so must CRED’s work to spread the word of this compromise and the benefits of fracking to all Coloradans.”

pmarcus@durangoherald.com

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