Hickenlooper announces oil, gas task force, calls on groups to withdraw ballot initiatives

DENVER – Gov. John Hickenlooper announced Monday a task force to craft recommendations to reduce land-use conflicts related to the proximity of oil and natural-gas facilities near homes, schools, businesses and recreation areas.

Hickenlooper made the announcement Monday morning at the state Capitol to head off ballot initiatives 88 and 89. Initiative 88 calls for 2,000-foot buffers between oil and gas wells and buildings, while Initiative 89 calls for an environmental bill of rights. State regulations require a 500-foot setback between oil and gas facilities and buildings.

The 18-member task force, chaired by La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt and XTO Energy Inc. President Randy Cleveland, will include members of the oil and gas, agricultural and home building industries, as well as members of the conservation community, local governments and civic leaders. The group will make recommendations to the legislature with a two-thirds majority, or issue majority and minority opinions.

“The work of this task force will provide an alternative to ballot initiatives that, if successful, would have regulated the oil and gas industry through the rigidity of constitutional amendments and posed a significant threat to Colorado’s economy,” Hickenlooper said. “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.”

Hickenlooper also plans to ask the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to dismiss litigation challenging the city of Longmont’s oil and gas regulations, and asked groups backing pro-industry and anti-fracking measures to withdraw their ballot initiatives on this topic. Fracking involves pumping water, sand and chemicals at high pressure deep underground to retrieve oil and gas from shale formations.

Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy, the group backed by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, also said Monday that it had canceled a press conference in Denver related to its initiatives.

Polis called Hickenlooper’s announcement a “victory for the people of Colorado and the movement to enact sensible fracking regulations.”

“I know for many today’s announcement will not go far enough, but I believe it’s just the beginning of next chapter,” Polis said on his Facebook page. “For the first time in this fight, citizens will have a seat at the negotiating table.”

Polis also praised a commitment by Hickenlooper to enforce a setback rule that encourages oil and gas companies to locate wells 1,000 feet from buildings.

Drilling cannot take place within 1,000 feet of buildings housing larger numbers of people, including schools, nursing homes and hospitals, without a hearing before the commission.

Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy said recently that it had gathered enough signatures for the initiatives to be placed on the Nov. 4 ballot. The group planned to hold a press conference Monday to announce the final number of petition numbers and said it would deliver the signed petitions to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.

Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy said later Monday that it would withdraw its initiatives if the pro-industry ballot initiatives were withdrawn, according to a statement from the group.

“Until we receive confirmation that industry has withdrawn initiatives 121 and 137, our campaign is moving forward,” the group said. “We would be happy to meet with our opponents at the Secretary of State’s Office to mutually withdraw all four initiatives at an agreed-upon time.”

Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy and Energy Independence, a group formed by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: APC), Noble Energy Inc. (NYSE: NBL), the two largest producers in Northern Colorado, and other oil companies, have proposed two initiatives to curtail attempts to restrict oil and gas development.

Initiative 121, spearheaded by Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, would bar cities and towns that have banned hydraulic fracturing from receiving tax revenue generated by oil and gas development elsewhere in the state.

Initiative 137 would require a petition circulated for signatures to mention an initiative’s estimated fiscal impact. Proponents of an initiative would have to prepare the fiscal impact estimate, which would be subject to review by the state Legislative Council.

A representative of Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy and Energy Independence did not know whether groups responsible for the initiatives would withdraw them.

An earlier version of this story misstated which lawsuit against Longmont that Hickenlooper asked the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation to withdraw from. Hickenlooper has asked that the state agency withdraw its lawsuit challenging Longmont’s oil and gas regulations, not the lawsuit challenging the city’s fracking ban.

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