Hickenlooper steps in to debate about drilling control

Governor wants to prevent all 64 counties from writing own rules

DENVER – Gov. John Hickenlooper has waded into an oil slick at the state Capitol, seeking to resolve a fight over how much control local governments have over gas and oil drilling.

Hickenlooper this week announced a task force to study the issue and report back to him by April 18, three weeks before the Legislature adjourns for the year.

People on all sides of the debate are skeptical of his move, especially in counties such as La Plata, which has a long history of local regulation over gas and oil.

So far, lawmakers have been at a stalemate on the issue. A Republican bill would have ended all local control. It died in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

A Democratic bill would have asserted local authority. It died in the Republican-controlled House.

Republicans have been preparing another bill, but Hickenlooper’s task force takes the issue off the table for the next several weeks.

The governor said in his January State of the State address that Colorado can’t have 64 sets of rules for gas production – one for each county.

“We want to protect public health, the environment and wildlife and to avoid duplication and conflict between different regulations of oil and gas activities,” Hickenlooper said in a news release announcing the task force.

But county governments are rallying against proposed bills that would strip their authority, and they are skeptical of Hickenlooper’s task force.

La Plata County Commissioner Kellie Hotter doubts the panel can solve the problem so soon.

“I think the task force is something to placate us, honestly. He put an April 18 deadline on this, and I don’t see it happening,” said Hotter, who is president-elect of Colorado Counties Inc., the lobbying group for county commissioners.

She thinks the law is clear already – local governments can regulate land use, while the state controls what happens inside a gas well.

La Plata County was the first in Colorado to assert its authority over gas drilling. Other counties have followed La Plata’s lead, and county leaders don’t think a blanket rule can work for the whole state, Hotter said.

“I’m not going to depend on the (Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission) or any other group to tell me what my regulations look like,” she said.

Conservation groups, too, were cool to the idea of the task force.

“The first instinct is suspicion as to what the outcome of this is going to be. I guess I’m cynical enough to wonder why this is being done,” said Josh Joswick of the San Juan Citizens Alliance. He is a former La Plata County commissioner.

It marks the third time in recent weeks the San Juan Citizens Alliance and other green groups have targeted Hickenlooper on a gas and oil issue. They also called for the immediate resignation of the COGCC director, who is leaving to take a job at a law firm with clients in the energy industry.

The groups also criticized Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist, for recording a radio ad for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association in which he defends hydraulic fracturing as completely safe.

The governor is also taking heat from the other side.

State Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, called Hickenlooper’s panel a stall tactic.

“When has a blue ribbon panel ever made a report and this Legislature acted on it?” Brophy said.

If Hickenlooper can buy time with the task force and twist the arms of Senate Democrats, then maybe he will succeed, Brophy said.

But Senate Democrats are pushing in the opposite direction.

Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, is sponsoring one of the only gas and oil bills that remains alive this year. It would put additional restrictions on hydraulic fracturing near hazardous waste sites. Drilling is proposed on an old Air Force bombing range in her city.

Carroll said she’s an “eternal optimist” and hopes legislation can pass this year.

“Outside of this building, this is not a partisan issue,” Carroll said. “It will be difficult here in the building. There’s no question about it.”

jhanel@durangoherald.com