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Inside Energy: Fracking and Politics

Colorado is becoming the test case for what happens when oil and gas drilling gets closer and closer to communities.

It’s an issue other boom states in the region may have to deal with soon.

Some Colorado communities are engaged in a political battle with the state to get more local control over regulating the industry. It’s a battle many thought was heading to the ballot this November--until a last minute compromise stopped this initiative effort in its tracks.

Inside Energy Reporter Dan Boyce says the compromise is making many on the environmental left furious.

70-year old great grandmother Kaye Fissinger looks out over a reservoir on the edge of the town of Longmont, Colorado. Companies have been trying to put in a series of gas wells near the banks.

FISSINGER: "There will be fracking all along here, where people play."

Fissinger has been fighting for the last three years to protect Longmont from fracking, the controversial technique of pumping pressurized water and sand deep underground to fracture rock and extract oil and gas. She helped lead a successful effort to ban fracking within Longmont city limits a couple years ago. Four other Colorado cities followed suit. The state shot back by joining a lawsuit, saying Longmont did not have the authority to enact such a ban. That’s what sent activists to the initiative process, to try to earn that authority.

POLIS: "People are most concerned about what it means for their quality of life, their health.”

This is Democratic Colorado Congressman Jared Polis. The former tech entrepreneur decided to bankroll these so-called local control measures.

POLIS: “It’s like any other industrial operation. I think it’s up to communities to decide if they want to incorporate that as any other economic development strategy or not.”

But Polis more or less stood alone in his support. The Democratic establishment in Colorado pushed back hard, says University of Denver Political Science Professor Peter Hanson.

HANSON: “The fracking initiatives were going to make life very difficult for Democrats this fall.

Both Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper and Senator Mark Udall are locked in tight re-election bids.

HANSON: “And for Sen. Udall or the Governor to open themselves up to accusations that they were somehow opposed to energy development and jobs in this state, would have been politically quite dangerous for them.”

(nat sot pro-industry ad)

While activists were busy collecting signatures for the initiatives, the industry was already spending millions of dollars in advertising to fight them.

(nat sot pro-industry ad)

The ad spending showdown over the measures was expected to total tens of millions--breaking state records. Then in early August, on the very day signatures for the ballot measures were due, Governor Hickernlooper announced a deal.

HICKENLOOPER: “Energy and extraction and our environment and the balance can be difficult, but it’s always something we’ve been able to do in Colorado.”

The state would drop one of its lawsuits against the city of Longmont. Congressman Polis would drop his initiatives. The oil and gas industry would drop two pro-fracking initiatives. And a new task force would be appointed to craft a solution on local control issues for state lawmakers. Activist Kaye Fissinger and much of the anti-fracking crowd immediately attacked Polis for caving to political pressures.

BOYCE: “If you could sum it up, sum it your feelings.”

FISSINGER: Yeah uh betrayal. Betrayal.”

Fissinger says she’s been a Democrat for 50 years, but this whole thing is forcing her to leave the party.

FISSINGER: “It'll be a cold day in hell before I vote for Hickenlooper... It, it would so violate my integrity to vote for this man.

A Judge declared Longmont’s fracking ban unconstitutional earlier this summer, but didn’t stop the activists, who spoke up at a recent city council meeting.

Council members voted unanimously to appeal the judge’s ruling.

Just this week, Governor Hickenlooper announced the makeup of the oil and gas task force--19 members ranging from elected leaders to industry representatives to members of local anti-fracking groups.

Matt Lepore heads up the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state regulator. He argues the state is best equipped to regulate oil and gas, to avoid a hodge podge of regulations. He commends the governor for brokering the compromise, and says he breathed a sigh of relief.

LEPORE: “I think that, yes, I did. And I think Colorado should have breathed a sigh of relief too, to be honest.”

Politicians of all stripes in oil and gas states have to balance the economic benefits of development with its environmental and health concerns. In Colorado they’ve already taken some giant strides towards that balance -- it is the first state to restrict methane emissions at oil and gas wells and among the first to require companies disclose fracking fluid information. And now, this task force of stakeholders across the spectrum. Other energy boom states will be looking to see if Colorado will lead on the local control debate too.

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.
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