At Aspen Ideas, Hickenlooper says that he opposes local regulation of oil and gas |

At Aspen Ideas, Hickenlooper says that he opposes local regulation of oil and gas

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
A centralized facility handles hydraulic fracturing for several natural gas wells being drilled in the Parachute area by WPX Energy. The site uses pipelines to send fracking fluids, sand and water to remote well sites. It's a way to reduce truck traffic and noise, according to WPX.
Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times |

Colo. Gov. John Hickenlooper said Monday at the Aspen Ideas Festival that he opposes proposed state ballot amendments that would cede control of oil-and-gas development to local jurisdictions.

Hickenlooper told a standing-room-only audience at the Doerr-Hosier Center that Colorado is the leader in the country in regulating the industry. It adopted the nation’s toughest regulations on air pollution earlier this year and limits the amount of methane that can be emitted during drilling and production. It worked with the industry to provide the public three years ago with information about the ingredients of fracking fluids, he said. The state also boosted fines for surface spills of fracking fluids from as much as $1,000 to as much as $10,000 per day.

But the governor said he also wants to see the oil-and-gas industry thrive and expand in Colorado.

“Our job is to make sure it’s done safely,” he said.

What constitutes safe drilling is triggering a big battle in Colorado. Advocates for health and the environment are trying to get a number of measures on the November ballot that would amend the state constitution to either regulate the industry directly or provide more local control.

Initiative 88 would increase the setback for oil and gas wells from the current 500 feet to 2,000 feet from occupied buildings.

Initiative 92 would give counties and municipalities power to limit oil-and-gas development in their jurisdictions.

All told, backers of 11 proposals are aiming for the November ballot.

Hickenlooper tried to cobble together a compromise that would avoid a November showdown. That effort suffered a potentially fatal blow Friday when 19 oil and gas companies said they wouldn’t support compromise legislation.

During an Aspen Ideas session titled, “Fracking: Is There a Fix to the Fight?”, Hickenlooper said the battle over setbacks is a land-use issue. Residents of subdivisions adjacent to rural areas don’t want oil or gas wells next to them. They have “a right to be upset” with drilling activity in their backyards, he said.

But the owners of the mineral rights beneath the surface also have property rights. Surface and mineral rights are often separate in Colorado. The holders of the mineral rights might have been counting on selling to fund their retirement, Hickenlooper noted. He doesn’t want to take that right away from them, and he doesn’t believe most residents of Colorado would support that taking.

The drilling of gas wells can be done within eight to 10 days, so the disruption to the adjacent property owners is minimal, Hickenlooper told reporters after the session. “How much is it really going to hurt their property values?” he asked.

The governor also said he supports expansion of natural gas outside of the U.S. There is such an abundance of the resource that exports could be supported without a long-term hike in domestic gas rates, he contended. Hydraulic fracturing has been a “revelation” that has opened many oil and gas reserves that were inaccessible, he said.

“Things are changing dramatically and rapidly,” Hickenlooper said. “Almost every well today is fracked. You’d be silly not to do it.”

He called the process industrial “but safe.”

The state has “doubled” the staff doing inspections to make sure the industry complies with regulations, he said.

Much of the battle over fracking is the result of “misinformation,” according to Hickenlooper. “There’s a PR battle going on about fracking,” he said.

The session also featured Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund for the past 20 years. The organization was instrumental in getting Colorado to tighten limits on methane, and Krupp credited Hickenlooper for his leadership on the issue.

Colorado’s rule will annually eliminate a level of methane equivalent to what’s produced by every car and truck in Colorado for a year, Krupp said.

Environmental Defense Fund is fighting to get the air-quality standards for the oil-and-gas industry adopted by other states.

“We need strong rules and we need compliance,” Krupp said. He gave no indication the organization would weigh into Colorado’s looming ballot battle.