Fracking fight may be called off with last-minute deal

DENVER – Environmentalists and the governor's office have crafted a last-minute deal that they hope will withdraw all proposed ballot initiatives to restrict fracking for the November election, potentially defusing a political time bomb that had driven a wedge between liberal and pro-business Democrats.

Not all necessary parties have agreed to make the agreement happen, however.

The deal, which Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) has been attempting to broker for months, would avoid a costly campaign battle over the issue and the potential of more restrictive measures against oil and gas drilling in the form of a ballot question.

The announcement was made during a press conference Monday at the state capitol. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colorado) called the governor's announcement a "framework" but did not commit fully to the ballot initiatives being removed.

If this deal goes through, no special session will be called to enact new rules on oil and gas as part of the deal.

Instead, a blue-ribbon panel would be assembled to recommend bills for next year's legislative session, made up of representatives from local communities, the oil and gas industry, and local government officials.

This would avoid a pair of questions (initiatives 88 and 89) to restrict fracking, which had political and financial backing from Rep. Polis.

The deal is not final, with the governor stressing that a pair of pro-industry ballot questions, filed as initiatives 121 and 137 must also be withdrawn.

"It's conditional, and our expectation is that all four of those [ballot initiatives] will be brought back," Hickenlooper said. "Not all, but most of the funders of all four of them are all on the same page."

While signatures have been submitted on all four petitions, the proponents named on the paperwork filed with the state may withdraw their ballot questions in writing by September 5.

Polis indicated that neither side should have to withdraw its ballot questions first.

"I would expect that the two would occur together," said Polis.

The campaign for the Polis-backed initiatives said it planned to submit its signatures, but would be happy to meet together with its pro-industry counterparts to withdraw all of the questions at a mutually agreeable time.

At first, backers of initiative 121, one of two pro-industry ballot questions, did not agree to drop their initiative as part of the deal. The initiative aimed to keep oil tax revenue from going to local governments who chose to ban fracking.

State Rep. Frank McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch) changed course late Monday after Polis pulled initiatives.

"For months we've asked Polis to pull his initiatives in favor of a more constructive approach. Proposed measure 121 framed the issue and allowed us to do that," McNulty said in a statement. "It's now up to Polis to make good on his promise to end his economic brinkmanship, as he promised he would earlier today."

When asked why the governor made the announcement before the deal was finalized, his office sent us the following response:

"We are confident that the best judgment about what is good for Colorado will prevail," said Kathy Green, a spokesperson for the Governor's office. "Indications also show that industry funding is coming to a conclusion on these initiatives."

"We always knew that we'd have to raise funding for a campaign," McNulty fired back, giving no indication that funding might precipitate an end to his ballot question. "[The] hard part was getting it on the ballot."

The proposed deal includes some immediate concessions to environmentalists to avoid the Polis-backed initiatives.

The governor's office has agreed to withdraw the state from a lawsuit against Longmont over the city's voter-enacted ban on fracking.

In addition, the governor has committed to more rigorously enforce a 1000-foot setback, the distance that must separate oil and gas drilling from existing buildings.

The 1,000-foot distance is encouraged, but not required, in existing rules. The state currently enforces a 500-foot setback in most circumstances.

Some exceptions to the 1,000-foot requirement will still be allowed.

The Polis-backed ballot questions were a source of awkwardness for Democrats in the upcoming November elections, with liberal groups planning to fire up voters against fracking and both Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colorado) and Hickenlooper running for re-election while opposing the measures.

There was concern that the fracking vote could deflate enthusiasm among liberal and environmentalist-minded voters for the top-of-ballot Democratic candidates.

If this deal goes through, Hickenlooper can show some results to please that portion of his base, while still avoiding more drastic regulation of the oil and gas sector, which is a major employer and contributor to the state's economy.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)


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