August 25, 2014

Anatomy Of Colorado’s Oil And Gas Ballot Compromise

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Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper announces a new oil and gas task force Monday in the state capitol building.

Dan Boyce

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper announces a new oil and gas task force Monday in the state capitol building.

The Denver Post reveals how the historic compromise was brokered earlier this month that kept anti-fracking ballot initiatives from reaching voters this November.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper – with his background in the oil and gas industry and in politics – is given much credit for stubborn insistence on a deal, despite the fact that negotiations broke down time and time again.  The Post reports that that insistence was due, in large part, to his realization of the potential economic impact of the state’s anti-fracking initiatives. Hickenlooper recalled speaking with an influential investor in a social gathering who indicated planned financing of oil and gas projects in Colorado was unlikely to go through if the fracking issues remained were on the ballot. The Governor is quoted:

If I’m hearing this through just one person, a friend of a friend, the same conversation is probably happening 20 times or 50 times in New York or Houston or other places….It really highlighted how big the black eye Colorado would get as a place that isn’t friendly to business. The risk was huge.

Business interests, along with a host of mainly Republican politicians and the Governor himself, were allied against Rep. Jared Polis.  Polis was bankrolling a number of the initiatives which sought greater local control over oil and gas drilling along the Front Range.  And he was widely criticized for his actions. Tamra Ward is President and CEO of Colorado Concern, an alliance of Colorado business executives, said Polis was “dogmatic” about the issue and was unwilling to have a broader conversation.

Supporters of Polis argued that the wealthy politician managed to elevate the debate over oil and gas drilling into a statewide – if not national conversation – beyond the concerns of a few far-left “fractivists.”

Negotiations dragged on among all parties throughout the summer, with a looming deadline of August 4 when signatures validating the ballot initiatives were due in to the Secretary of State’s office.  According to the Post story, the final push began on July 31.  With a great deal of pressure on each side, the idea of a statewide task force (18 members to make recommendations on oil and gas issue – six members from the environmental groups, six from oil and gas, six civic leaders) finally won support all around, along with a promise to drop the state’s lawsuit against the city of Longmont’s fracking ban.

Ted Trimpa, a Colorado democratic strategist, was in on the deal.  “(The idea of a taskforce) smoked everyone out. It shook the trees. People had to come up with what their real issues were.  It was all out there.”

Another participant, Chris Castilian, director of government affairs for Anadarko Petroleum and deputy chief of staff for former Republican Gov. Bill Owens, said he and others were still suspicious that Rep. Polis would sabotage the deal in the end. “Some of us gently suggested that if he wanted to be involved in state policy,” Castilian opined,  “he should run for the state legislature, and he might want to be focusing his efforts on (Veterans Affairs) reform and immigration reform and some of the things back in Washington, D.C.”

But Hickenlooper felt vindicated:  “There are still a bunch of critics who say we’re just kicking the can down the road.  But if those critics had their way, we would be in the middle of a ballot war right now that would scare off investors and put thousands of jobs at risk.

Those critics, many of whom felt betrayed by the last-minute deal, would have preferred a ballot war over an issue that continues to transform many of their communities.