The conversation about whether oil and gas exploration should occur in certain communities has escalated to near fever pitch in Colorado, now that the activity has reached Front Range communities. The tension between who determines whether and how gas drilling takes place – the state or local communities themselves – could deliver as many as 11 local-control-related ballot initiatives to voters in November, unless the Colorado Legislature can pass a measure during a special session that satisfies all sides. There is progress; more is required.
Broomfield, Boulder, Lafayette, Fort Collins and Loveland have voted for various moratoriums and outright bans on gas-drilling activity within their respective city limits, citing concerns about the related health and environmental impacts. Those voter initiatives have prompted pushback from the state, which regulates oil and gas drilling through the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, as well as the industry. Localities are primarily concerned with setbacks and noise, though some would like the right to ban gas production and fracking altogether – a nonstarter for negotiations. A draft bill that Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, and several industry representatives reached tentative agreement around on Friday would have allowed local communities to increase setbacks, craft more stringent noise ordinances than those the state allows and allow for local monitoring to ensure that these rules are being followed. The parties to the agreement had hoped it would gain sufficient traction and support from the grass-roots groups pushing for more local control so as to spur a special session of the legislature to begin today. It did not.
At issue for those seeking greater local input on regulating gas activity is language reiterating that the COGCC is the ultimate arbiter of such activity, and that any local power exerted – and there currently is quite a bit relegated to cities and counties, with respect to land use issues, noise, health and safety, among others – is subject to pre-emption should any local rules be found to “materially impede” recovery of the underlying gas. That does seem to undercut the notion that much was gained in the conversation that sparked hope on Friday.
Nevertheless, momentum for a nonballot solution is building and Hickenlooper, the industry and Polis – who has promised financial and political support for a handful of measures that would bolster local control – should keep at it and invite conservation groups to the table. Without their participation, consensus will remain elusive. Without consensus, there is little hope for a legislative solution.
The alternative is a crowded November ballot full of initiatives that will surely be complex and costly to explain to voters and have as good a chance as not of drawing a “no” vote. With as many as a dozen drilling-related initiatives on deck – and whatever other issues that will appear on the ballot – there is a real risk of voter fatigue. Better to solve the issue pre-emptively. Friday’s agreement was not enough to get there yet, but the conversation is productive so far. That is a positive sign that meaningful conversations can yield equally tangible results.