Fracking talks fail, November vote likely

DENVER - Talks aimed at brokering a compromise to allow increased local control over oil and gas drilling operations have failed, Gov. John Hickenlooper's (D-Colorado) office reported Wednesday.

The governor's office says there will be no special session - as Hickenlooper had hoped - to pass a compromise law on fracking.

"Despite our best efforts and those of other willing partners," the governor said in a written statement. "We have not been able to secure the broader stakeholder support necessary to pass bipartisan legislation in a special session."

That news all but ensures Colorado voters will have the opportunity to weigh in with a statewide vote on fracking this year, a follow-up to local ballot questions which have halted the practice in four Front Range communities.

Hickenlooper wanted to avoid that vote, trying to continue negotiations even after this year's legislative session wrapped up. He admitted at that time it was a heavy lift.

"On both sides there's a part of each constituency, they are raring for the fight," Hickenlooper said in May. "They think they'll win and they think it's going to help their candidates."

It's a serious loss for Hickenlooper on a couple of fronts.

"No. 1, he put a lot of political capital into this, he worked hard on it. It failed," 9NEWS political analyst Floyd Ciruli said. "It's a leadership question and [Republican challenger Bob] Beauprez will clearly take advantage of it."

The issue is also poised to divide Democrats in a contentious election year, with top-of-ticket candidates like Hickenlooper supporting the oil and gas industry despite strong sentiment against fracking among environmentalists in the party's base.

Ciruli says the danger for Democrats is not that some liberal voters will vote for GOP challengers, but that they will vote on the ballot questions and leave the big races like governor and senator blank.

"That could be 3,000 or 4,000 votes. It could be a few more. It's hard to say. As you know, this is a very environmental state," Ciruli said. "The reason why they were fighting so hard against [a ballot question on fracking] is that they feel it could hurt the entire Democratic ticket."

Despite that possibility, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colorado,) who is in a tight re-election race against Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) aligned himself with the governor's position.

"Fracking can be done safely and responsibly," Udall wrote shortly after the governor's announcement. "I believe that Colorado can and must do better, which is why I oppose these one-size-fits-all restrictions."

The effort to force a vote in November has backing from Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colorado,) who is putting his own personal wealth into the effort to curtail fracking, putting him at odds with Hickenlooper in an election year.

PREVIOUS STORY: Rep. Polis debates fracking policy with COGA

"When they began their work, they all knew that the chances of success were slim," Polis said of the parties negotiating with the governor's office. "Now, as it has become clear that the path to passing a legislative compromise has been obstructed, we must turn to the people of Colorado to solve this problem."

Polis is referring to the fact that land owners in Colorado often do not own the rights to the oil beneath their property, which has primed the pump for conflicts when oil companies assert their legal rights to drill.

While there was progress bringing environmentalists and oil companies to the table to work on that issue, negotiators were never able to build a broad enough coalition to support a deal granting more control to local governments over what oil companies can and cannot do.

There wasn't much luck whipping votes in the state legislature, either.

"Republicans and a good number of Democrats weren't about to relent to Polis' belligerence," Sen. Greg Brophy (R-Wray) told 9NEWS. "Hickenlooper wanted us all to cave to Polis, but we didn't. And the voters won't either."

With a little more than two weeks to gather signatures to qualify for the ballot, several proposed questions are being contemplated by Polis and his supporters. Some versions simply allow local governments to create more restrictive rules on fracking than the state imposes, including bans.

Other versions would increase by hundreds of feet the statewide "setback," the distance that must be allowed between oil wells and existing buildings.

Republicans have focused their criticism mainly on Polis in the wake of the announcement.

"Congressman Polis shouldn't be putting Colorado's economy up for election," said Rep. Cory Gardner. "Coloradans are paying more to power their homes and fuel their cars, they cannot afford to lose their job too."

Former state House Speaker Frank McNulty echoed that sentiment, writing. "there is one and only one person responsible for putting Colorado families and communities at risk, and that person is the millionaire congressman from Boulder."

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)


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