Governor’s Oil & Gas Task Force Gets Mixed Reviews

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 After five months of meetings, the work of Governor John Hickenlooper’s oil and gas task force is getting mixed reviews from lawmakers at the state capitol. 

Governor John Hickenlooper created the task force last August to avoid a fracking fight at the ballot box, and to keep two anti- oil and gas measures from reaching voters. Now, that group of individuals from the industry to environmentalists has backed nine recommendations, such as adding more well inspectors and trying to reduce truck traffic.

“What they were charged to come up with is strong community protections, they got an F+,” said Senator Matt Jones [D-Longmont]. “They’re talking about how it’s really a B, it’s not.”

Democrats like Jones said the 21-member group didn’t go far enough to address the concerns of communities living near energy development and essentially failed in its duty. He said individual cities and towns should be allowed to regulate industrial activities such as oil and gas drilling. He said the lack of resolution from the task force only lends more unrest to the fracking debate.

“It’s basically the status quo and it’s very unfortunate,” said Jones. “ I’m afraid they didn’t improve much of anything and people have the right to have strong safe guards at the local level.”

For others, the absence of a local control recommendation means any decision on fracking will likely happen outside of the state legislature and at the ballot box in 2016. 

“There’s a lot of people that want a say about what’s going on in their back yard,” said Representative Mike Foote [D-Lafayette]. “Right now they don’t feel like they have a say at the state level.”

Foote is considering introducing a bill this session to change the mission of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which oversees the industry. He wants to define their charge as regulating rather than fostering development of oil and gas. That’s a proposal that didn’t get enough votes from the task force to move forward.

“I still think that’s a good idea,” said Foote. “It could be something that could help us keep the conversation going.”

Representative Don Coram [R- Montrose] was never in favor of a task force in the first place. He wanted voters to have their say last November.

“I’m personally very disappointed that it didn’t go the last time. I think it was an issue that would’ve been settled and we could move on to some things we could actually do something about.”

But even with calls for an outright statewide ban on fracking, Coram doesn’t believe there’s widespread support.

“The oil and gas industry is the driver of our economy in Colorado,” said Coram. “And if that were to go away, our education system will suffer, our roads and transportation.   Colorado has probably the toughest oil and gas standards in the nation and let’s give them a chance to work. You know we’ve had over 50,000 fracks in this state with very little problem.”

Senator Jerry Sonnenberg [R-Sterling] worries possible ballot initiatives will bring further instability to an industry already battered by low oil prices.  But he says he doubts anything from the task force would have appeased people who oppose fracking.

“There will always be those people who do not want to be energy independent and would rather buy our energy from overseas from people who want to kill us,” said Sonnenberg.

As for legislation making it through the state house, Sonnenberg doesn’t think any local control measures for energy development would stand a chance this session, especially when the task force couldn’t get enough votes to move the idea forward.

“Even a task force that I thought might be anti- oil and gas production can’t find a problem to send a solution to the legislature. I think their work is done. They did what they needed to do. I don’t see any need to move forward.”

For his part, Governor Hickenlooper praised the task force for making what he called undeniable progress. He went on to add that Colorado has addressed tough issues to balance quality of life with an important and thriving industry. The final set of recommendations will be delivered to the Governor on Friday.