Guv asserts support for fracking

Hickenlooper heckled at debate with county commish
The Colorado Statesman

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, faced hecklers on Monday during a hydraulic fracturing debate with Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones, during which he restated his support for the oil and gas industry, but stopped short of taking a position on controversial energy bills moving through the legislature.

Hickenlooper — a former geologist who has been criticized in the last year for having a cozy relationship with the industry — emphatically supported the state’s right to sue local municipalities over taking steps to restrict oil and gas activity. He pointed out that more than 96 percent of the state’s natural gas and oil extractions depend on hydraulic fracturing. The governor believes banning the process would be the equivalent of banning all drilling activities.

“To ban fracking essentially denies someone access to what they paid money for,” he said. “Someone owns those mineral rights…”

Hickenlooper said the courts have already ruled that banning drilling activity would be the same as a “taking.”

“They viewed that as a taking… If there’s a different interpretation than that, then that’s going to go through a legal process that’s way over my head,” declared Hickenlooper.

But Jones — an environmentalist and former chief of the Colorado Environmental Coalition — questioned the governor’s logic.

“I got to tell you, governor. I’m new to this public office stuff. But I’m pretty sure that suing your constituents isn’t a good public outreach strategy,” she quipped.

Longmont voters this past November supported a ban on fracking, which is currently being challenged in court. Nearby Lafayette residents are also considering a ban. And in neighboring Larimer County, the Fort Collins City Council recently backed a ban on the drilling process.

Fracking employs the pressure of a fluid — often times including chemicals, sand and water — to increase extraction rates. Concerns have grown that water can become contaminated, especially as the process has made its way to the heavily populated Front Range. There are also noise, congestion, air pollution and resource fears.

Highlighting the polarizing conversation, Hickenlooper was stopped on three occasions during the 45-minute debate at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law by hecklers who criticized him for supporting the process.

“There’s no safe way to regulate fracking,” shouted one of the hecklers. “You’re a liar who works on behalf of the oil and gas industry. I’m requesting you… immediately resign because you’re forcing communities across our state to accept the poison forced on us by the fracking industry… Ban fracking everywhere!”

“You give lip service… but you don’t do anything about it,” yelled another heckler. “Where’s the solar panels? Where’s the wind? You give lip service to supporting these things, but you don’t actually empower them. This place is filled with oil and gas. There’s no wind energy in here.”

The attacks caused some in the audience to quiver. One audience member retorted to a heckler, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Hickenlooper himself seemed thrown off guard, responding, “The train of thought, always hard to hold on to.”
The rabble-rousers were removed from the audience.

The governor continued with his remarks, despite the outbursts. It is not the first time he has faced opposition on the subject. So-called “fracktivists” have been known to surround him with questions, and he has been accused of drinking the “frack-aid,” especially after admitting recently to drinking hydraulic fracturing fluid. In doing so, Hickenlooper has attempted to dispel fears that the process is an environmental danger. But his support has only caused a backlash.

Still, the governor continued with his positive messaging, stating, “Our primary responsibility is to make sure if we’re going to recover natural gas and oil using directional drilling and fracking, we have to make sure we protect our land and water at all times, and hold ourselves to the highest possible environmental standards.”

He pointed out that Colorado has mandated the disclosure of ingredients used in fracking. And he added that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or COGCC, recently took steps to impose a 500-foot universal setback of wells, as well as water quality sampling both before and after a well is drilled.

Ultimately, Hickenlooper said the issue is about public good: “You look at the clean air we’re getting out of replacing coal plants with natural gas plants, we’re talking about reducing… the basic pollutants in our air by 70, or 80 percent over the next five years. This is a dramatic public good,” he said.

“Not sending billions of dollars to foreign dictatorships, I think that’s a public good…” Hickenlooper continued. “After subsistence issues of food and water, energy and education are the two most important things to lifting people out of poverty.”

Jones, however, believes the immediate public good should focus on allowing local governments to decide what is best for their communities.

“Pollution does not have boundaries,” she said.

“The state’s rules must be a floor, not a ceiling,” Jones continued. “Cities and counties have to be able to go further based on the desires and needs of their residents.”

Could a veto be coming?

Hickenlooper did not indicate whether he might veto several pieces of Democratic bills floating through the legislature that aim to crack down on the oil and gas industry. Those bills include:

• Senate Bill 202, sponsored by Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, and Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, which would require the COGCC to use a risk-based strategy for inspecting well sites, and have enough inspectors to inspect each location once per year. The measure is awaiting a hearing in Senate Appropriations;

• House Bill 1267, sponsored by Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, and Jones, which would increase industry maximum fines from $1,000 per day to $15,000 per day, and set a minimum fine of $5,000 per violation per day. The measure would also repeal the current maximum total fine cap of $10,000. It is awaiting a hearing in House Appropriations;

• House Bill 1269, sponsored by Foote and Jones, which would prohibit a newly appointed COGCC commissioner from being an employee, officer, or director of an oil and gas operator, or company. The House laid the bill over on Wednesday after it passed the House Transportation and Energy Committee on March 28 on a party-line vote of 7-5;

• House Bill 1275, sponsored by Rep. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, and Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, which would authorize a review of health data related to the effects of oil and gas operations in Larimer, Weld, Boulder and Arapahoe counties. The measure is scheduled for a hearing on April 11 in the House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee; and

• House Bill 1278, sponsored by Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, which would require an oil and gas operator to report an oil or waste spill of one barrel or more within 24 hours. It is scheduled for a hearing on April 10 in the House Transportation and Energy Committee.

Another oil and gas bill that has bipartisan support is House Bill 1268, sponsored by Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, and Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, which would require sellers of real estate to disclose any mineral rights associated with the property. The measure unanimously passed the House on Tuesday.
Hickenlooper did not touch on many of the bills. But when asked directly about HB 1269, he expressed concerns, though he did not state whether he was contemplating vetoing the measure.

“Changing the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, that’s really something that you don’t do lightly…” opined the governor.

Jones, however, believes current oil and gas policies and oversight is putting the state at risk.

“The reason we’re even having this debate today is because oil and gas fracking has many risks to our health, to our air and water, to our property values, and to our quality of life,” she said. “We shouldn’t be playing Russian roulette with the public’s health.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com