Supporters of two Colorado ballot measures that would have curbed fracking in the state announced late Monday they were standing down, averting an expensive election-year fight that was creating uncertainty in both the governor's and Senate races.
On Monday morning, hours before the deadline to turn in the 86,105 signatures needed to qualify the initiatives for the ballot, the chief proponent and a leading foe unveiled a deal. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who feared the initiatives could harm the economy, and Democratic Rep. Jared Polis, who championed and helped finance the measures, announced a compromise to keep them off the ballot.
But the group that collected the signatures for the Polis-backed measures, Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, turned them in to the secretary of state's office anyway. Initiative supporters insisted they needed assurances that the oil and gas industry would withdraw a pro-fracking ballot measure and a related initiative that also could have landed on the November ballot.
Hours later, Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy said they had reached an agreement with proponents of the industry-backed ballot measures.
"Now that Initiatives 121 and 137 have been withdrawn, tomorrow we will also be withdrawing our initiatives, 88 and 89," Mara Sheldon, a spokeswoman for Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, said in a statement. "We are pleased an agreement could be reached and that we can balance protections for Colorado families with responsible energy development."
During their morning news conference, Hickenlooper and Polis had outlined the deal. The governor said he would create a task force to devise an alternative to the ballot measures and address Coloradans' concerns about hydraulic fracturing -- a technique in which water, sand and chemicals are injected into the ground at high pressure to extract oil and gas. Polis, in turn, said he would urge the committees pushing the anti-fracking ballot measures to stand down.
Opponents of the anti-fracking initiatives have argued that they would amount to a backdoor ban on hydraulic fracturing. Current Colorado law requires new oil and gas wells to be set back 500 feet from an occupied structure. One of the proposed measures would have expanded that buffer to 2,000 feet. Opponents said that would dramatically limit the number of available drilling sites, noting that the current buffer affects an 18-acre area, but a 2,000-foot setback would impact a 288-acre area.
Industry and business interests were as concerned about the second proposed ballot measure championed by Polis. It would have inserted an environmental bill of rights into the state's constitution in an effort to give communities greater control of the rapid expansion of fracking across Colorado. The number of active oil wells in Colorado has more than doubled over the last decade, according to data from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
The oil and gas industry and allied business groups had been gearing up for a fierce fight that could have cost as much as $50 million.
The industry-backed Initiative 121 would have barred local governments who ban fracking from receiving tax revenues "from the activities it prohibits." Oil and gas interests were also backing Initiative 137, which would have required the state to prepare a fiscal impact study for each ballot measure.
Five Colorado towns have banned fracking since 2012. Longmont was the first, but a Boulder County District Court judge struck down the city's fracking ban in late July, ruling that it conflicted with the state's authority to regulate the practice. (In her ruling, Judge D.D. Mallard said Longmont could maintain its ban while considering an appeal.)
Hickenlooper had infuriated some fracking opponents by allowing the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry, to join the Colorado Oil and Gas Assn.'s lawsuit to overturn Longmont's ban.
As part of the compromise, Hickenlooper said he would urge the commission "to dismiss the Longmont litigation" challenging the city's fracking ban.
Hickenlooper's office said the 18-member task force would "represent the broad interests of those involved in responsible oil and gas development, including members of the oil and gas industry, agricultural industry, the home-building industry, the conservation community, local governments and civic leaders."
The governor charged the task force with finding "an alternative to ballot initiatives" that he said would pose "a significant threat to Colorado's economy. This approach will put the matter in the hands of a balanced group of thoughtful community leaders, business representatives and citizens who can advise the Legislature and the executive branch on the best path forward."
Polis, who took action after a drilling operation was built across the road from his weekend home in Weld County last year, said the compromise was a victory for "the movement to enact sensible fracking regulations," even as he acknowledged that some constituents would be disappointed by his support for withdrawing the ballot measures.
"For the first time, citizens will be on equal footing to the oil and gas industry, and able to negotiate directly for regulations that protect property rights, homes values, clean water, and air quality," Polis said in his statement. "I am pleased that we were able to come together, and today's agreement is meaningful progress toward sensible fracking regulations."
Sen. Mark Udall, who is facing a tough reelection race against Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, praised the Hickenlooper-Polis compromise as a "balanced way forward."
"This deal — which averts a divisive and counterproductive ballot fight over one-size-fits-all restrictions — is welcome news and underscores how all of Colorado benefits when we find common ground," Udall said in a statement.