Colorado has launched its newly formed hydraulic fracturing task force as fracking is hotly debated in the state.
A highly anticipated first public meeting Thursday gave a glimpse into what critics have lambasted as an anti-industry bias from one of the task force’s leaders.
Just hours earlier, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper said he couldn’t imagine not supporting whatever recommendations the Oil and Gas Task Force puts forward to the state legislature.
“I can’t imagine something I wouldn’t support,” Hickenlooper told The Daily Caller News Foundation when asked if he would back the task force’s recommendations on drilling regulations. “If they can get it through here, then it’s probably good policy.”
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The Oil and Gas Task Force was created by Hickenlooper earlier this month as a compromise with Congressman Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, who has funneled lots of money into anti-fracking ballot measures. In return, Polis and his environmentalist allies agreed to drop ballot state measures aimed at allowing local governments to ban fracking.
The task force has been attacked by critics who say it displays weakness on the part of Hickenlooper and that environmentalists will control the task force’s agenda.
“This comment confirms two things Coloradans already know about John Hickenlooper: he expects more regulations to come from the Polis Commission and he lets others tell him what he should do,” said Allen Fuller, spokesman for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez’s campaign.
“So much for ending uncertainty for Colorado job creators. Hickenlooper clearly just kicked the can down the road,” Fuller told TheDCNF.
Hickenlooper tried to distance himself from the panel when first asked by TheDCNF if he would back a recommendation to allow local communities to ban fracking within their jurisdictions.
“They would make that recommendation to the legislature,” Hickenlooper said. “We’re not a czar, we’re not a dictator.” The governor added that his job was to make sure all the perspectives are heard, then “hopefully support that process so it can come to a resolution.”
Hickenlooper, however, did tell TheDCNF there was a “high probability” he would support a recommendation from the task force. The potential problem he faces, however, is that the task force does not have to present one recommendation from all its members — in theory each of the 19 members can send in their own policy recommendation.
A split task force only creates more problems for Hickenlooper, who is in a tight race with Republican challenger Beauprez. The RealClearPolitics polling average between the two candidates puts them in a dead heat, with Hickenlooper only leading by 0.6 percent.
Manned By Environmentalists and Democratic Donors
Hickenlooper’s task force has already come under heavy fire for being filled with Democratic donors and environmental activists. One such activist is task force chairwoman Gwen Lachelt, a former community organizer and founder of the environmental group Earthworks. Lachelt is currently a La Plata county commissioner.
The task force’s first meeting served as a window into what issues the group would take up and how it would debate issues surrounding state oil and gas drilling operations. Critics of the task force saw it as an opportunity to see if members with environmentalist ties used it to promote an anti-fossil fuel agenda.
““When I heard that the ballot initiatives would go away as part of this compromise agreement, I was really disappointed,” Lachelt said in her opening statement. “It was a monumental effort to collect the signatures required to put these initiatives on the ballot. Taking those decisions out of the hands of the people of Colorado felt, and still feels, like a real blow to the democratic process.”
Lachelt then went on to lambast Amoco’s (now BP America) drilling operations in La Plata County in the 1980s. She said “La Plata County was truly in chaos” as Amoco expanded its drilling operations. She said people would regularly complain that “my water blasts out of my faucet now and it smells” and that “we can light our tap water on fire.” Lachelt said the county “had so many impacts we couldn’t keep place.”
Lachelt looked annoyed at times about the strong pro-oil and gas industry sentiment at the meeting and, especially towards the end of the meeting when many pro-industry supporters spoke in favor of drilling before the task force.
“We’ve heard from 17 folks now in 40 minutes… and there’s been a theme,” Lachelt said after many people got up and echoed pro-industry sentiments. “I don’t know if anybody’s catching on yet. There’s been a theme, so… if you agree with what someone has already said, please just briefly state that so we can get through everybody tonight by six.”
Lachelt’s opening remarks on her disappointment that ballot measures allowing for local bans on fracking being withdrawn were echoed by Earthworks, the environmental group she helped found.
“The true measure of the commission will be simple. If it recommends that local communities can decide for themselves if, and how, they want to live with oil and gas development, it will be a success,” Bruce Baizel, Earthworks’ oil and gas accountability project director, said in a statement.
“If doesn’t, it will be a failure,” Baizel said.” So the first step in assessing the commission will be to see if the possibility of community control of oil and gas development lies within the scope of work the commission defines for itself.”
“There are tens of thousands of men, women and families in the Colorado oil and gas industry who are deeply worried this task force will misled by groups like Safe Clean Colorado and Food & Water Watch,” Simon Lomax with the pro-industry project Energy In Depth told the task force on Thursday. “I implore you: Please do not put the livelihoods of these Colorado families in jeopardy by letting political talking points from ideological groups trump the facts.”
A Tough Election Ahead
Even though the task force will not be making any recommendations until February 2015, how the task force proceeds could impact Hickenlooper’s reelection bid this fall.
If the task force is seen as a way for environmentalists to hype up fears surrounding fracking, Hickenlooper could lose support from more moderate voters who see oil and gas development as a good thing, but maybe support some regulations, not bans on drilling.
If the task force is perceived as favoring industry, the governor could feel the heat from environmental left — many of whom want to see fracking banned by localities and have even pushed a statewide ban.
Any hit to Hickenlooper could also impact the Senate race between incumbent Colorado Democrat Mark Udall and Republican challenger Rep. Cory Gardner. Both Hickenlooper and Udall have tried to stay away from energy and environmental issues.
Beauprez’s campaign, however, has been quick to point out that Polis is still exercising influence over the commission through his environmental group Safe Clean Colorado. Even after this group dropped its ballot measure campaigns, the group told supporters it would hold “both the task force and the governor accountable.”
Earthworks, the group founded by Lachelt, tweeted on Monday that “[w]inning the war on oil will be easier if we win the war on fracking.”
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