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Hickenlooper pushing for compromise on oil and gas drilling issues

May 8, 2014 Updated: May 8, 2014 at 8:47 pm

DENVER - Gov. John Hickenlooper called proposed ballot questions on local control of oil and gas "draconian," and said Thursday there's a 50 percent chance lawmakers will come back this summer in a special session to try to hammer out a compromise that prevents the issue from going to voters.

The governor has brought both sides of the issue - members of the oil and gas industry and proponents of greater local control - together to a negotiating table of sorts with the goal of preventing a constitutional amendment going to voters in November.

"There are still several issues that both sides are kind of stuck on," Hickenlooper said. "We feel that the longer people stay discussing, both sides generally become a little more flexible and a little more open to a compromise."

But Hickenlooper said that while negotiations got closer last week, a great divide remains between those proposing ballot questions and the industry's powerful lobby that could likely stop legislation in its tracks. And unless a middle ground is met, there's no point in a special session because legislators would not be able to craft a bill to satisfy both sides, he said.

Several groups have filed more than a dozen proposed constitutional amendments, hoping to let voters decide in November whether municipalities and counties can have greater say over oil and gas drilling in their jurisdictions.

The issue was spurred in communities that have struggled with nearby oil and gas operations - almost exclusively hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. A handful of communities have banned or put a moratorium on fracking, taking the issue to local voters to decide. The state and the oil industry have filed suit against some of those communities, arguing that mineral rights and drilling operations are state-level issues.

"We're trying to figure out how those neighborhoods and local communities can have some voice in how oil and gas exploration and production is conducted but at the same time protect the property rights of somebody," Hickenlooper said.

Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, who is among the lawmakers most interested in the fracking issue, said she was skeptical a special session would be called.

"There are a lot of ballot measures hanging out there on this, and the people obviously feel that there are a lot of unresolved issues," Carroll said. "That being said, I don't think a special session is warranted or a good idea. Besides being about $23,000 a day to taxpayers, I don't think there would be a good result."

Carroll said it would have been nice to have had the local control issue resolved during the legislative session,- which ended Wednesday,- but she doesn't feel like the stakeholders are anywhere closer to an agreement.

Senate Republican Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, said even if an agreement were reached, there would be no guarantee that all of the ballot questions would get dropped or that a new group wouldn't introduce another one.

"There's obviously been a lot of discussions and the rumors are running rampant right now," Cadman said. "I think the bottom line is if there is a way that we can protect the industry that is feeding our families and providing the tax base and providing energy not just for the state but for the country, then we ought to be open to looking at what is it going to take to protect that."

But Cadman said special sessions aren't fun, and nobody wants to come back this summer unless there is a strong chance of a good outcome.

A Colorado Springs-based group - Colorado Community Rights Network - is the closest to getting a measure on the November ballot. The language has been approved for the ballot question, and it's pending a hearing before the Colorado Supreme Court. That proposed constitutional amendment would give local governments regulatory authority over business operations that impact the health and safety of a community. Despite the broad language, the group has said it's aimed at oil and gas operations.

What the amendments' backers would like to control is how close operations can get to developments, such as houses and schools. They also are looking to address other issues like noise and pollution concerns.

"We have an industry that came to the table and helped draft some of the most stringent regulations not just in the state but in the world," Cadman said, referring to the recently adopted air quality standards. "How about we give them a chance to operate under the rules they said they would operate under because they are producing the cleanest, safest energy in the world?."

If a compromise isn't met on the local control issue, there's likely to be a well-financed campaign on both sides in advance of the November elections.

"On both sides there's a part of each constituency that they are raring for a fight and they think they will win," Hickenlooper said. "I think the majority of people in both camps are willing to work through a compromise."

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