Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis announced an agreement Monday that could avert a costly and potentially destructive fight the state does not need. They should be commended for their effort. Late Monday evening, state Rep. Frank McNulty and the gas and oil industry signed on as well to complete the deal and to avert a ballot battle.
Central to this issue are dueling ballot measures advanced by opponents of hydraulic fracturing and by industry supporters. The deal envisions everyone stepping back and withdrawing their initiatives, which can be done even after they are on the ballot. As part of the compromise, the state also will drop a lawsuit against the city of Longmont about its efforts to restrict drilling.
The governor will then create an 18-member task force to recommend what steps the Legislature should take to address concerns about fracking.
Members of the task force have not been named, but it is to be chaired by La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt – an excellent choice. With years of experience working on all aspects of gas development in and around Southwest Colorado. She knows the problems and complaints, what works and what will not. She has dealt with the issues surrounding drilling long enough to know the industry is not going away, and that the economics of energy production are important to Colorado. But by naming her to chair the task force, Hickenlooper also signaled that there will be no packing the task force with industry representatives.
The task force’s structure should reinforce that. Six members will come from the gas and oil industry, six from concerned citizen groups and six from members of the public with knowledge of the issue.
If successful, the compromise would also end any question of a special session of the Legislature. That has the added benefit of saving taxpayer money.
But it all still turns on the ballot measures. Initiative 88 would prohibit drilling within 2,000 feet of any occupied structure. (The current setback is 500 feet.) Initiative 89 would create an Environmental Bill of Rights that, among other things, would allow local governments to enact drilling rules more stringent than state law. Both are backed by Polis.
Initiative 121 is backed by McNulty. It would deny state money to localities that oppose fracking. Initiative 137, with a different set of proponents, would require ballot initiatives include fiscal impact statements, presumably to let future voters know how much interfering with fracking would cost the state.
The deadline for turning in petitions for the ballot measures was 2 p.m. Monday. Signatures must of course be checked and officially counted. But backers of Initiatives 88, 89 and 121 say they have turned in more than enough signatures to qualify their measures. (Initiatives that make the ballot will be renamed amendments and given new numbers.)
But while the issues and this proposed compromise are decidedly political, the divisions do not reflect a standard partisan split. Congressman Polis is a Boulder Democrat. State Rep. McNulty is a Republican from Highlands Ranch and a lawyer whose law degree has an emphasis on natural resources. Gov. Hickenlooper is a Democrat, but one with a background as a geologist working in the gas and oil industry.
McNulty and backers of Initiative 137 finalized the compromise when they agreed to the deal Hickenlooper and Polis struck. The alternative is a long, costly campaign and the real threat of damaging Colorado’s economy and the state constitution. How best to regulate drilling and fracking is not something for the ballot box. This compromise is better.