Resurgent legislative Dems draw a bead on fracking

/ Colorado News Agency commentary
Nov 29th, 2012

pete mugYou might think the Colorado Municipal League, whose member city Longmont just passed a ballot issue prohibiting fracking, would sponsor or support legislative moves next session to make the process more difficult in or near other urban areas.

Not so.

“We have no intention of running any legislation relating to oil and gas,” says chief CML attorney Geoff Wilson.  “In our view we’re legally possessed of a substantial amount of authority in this area.  We need no additional assistance from the General Assembly.”

He was speaking on the phone, and I couldn’t tell whether he used finger quotes when he said “assistance.” but it sounded like it.

He knows a 1,000-foot setback from an oil or gas well to housing is “something the environmental community has tied their wagon to.” New Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, said as much in an op-ed for The Denver Post recently. She described 1,000 feet as a “starting point” and suggested many citizens and local governments would want more.

But the CML’s policy committee has tabled a move to back such legislation.  A 1,000-foot setback means a 2,000-foot diameter around the edges of cities in which there can be no development, Wilson noted.  “That’s not consistent with other land-use planning objectives like infill and density.”

What’s more, he added, the agricultural community also wants closer, not farther limits.  Why? Because if a well must be 1,000 feet from the farmhouse, more agricultural land is taken out of production.  The pivot irrigation sprinklers can’t maneuver over or around the drilling rigs.

Current setbacks established by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission are 350 feet from high-density housing and 150 feet from low-density.  But it is now mulling a revision of these figures along with other changes.

Joining in opposition to farther setbacks, among others, is the Colorado Association of Home Builders.  “Even 750 feet is untenable to us,” says its lobbyist, Jeani Frickey.   “There’s no data to show that current setbacks are not adequate to protect health and safety.”

Longer setbacks “eat up millions of dollars of land that could be used for development…. We would unintentionally push development out further and further,” Frickey says. The housing industry is just now coming out of a five-year slump.  “Hamstringing land that could be used for development would be devastating.”

Neither the state nor the well drillers have sued to overturn Longmont’s fracking ban yet, but sooner or later someone probably will.

What bothers Wilson more is another lawsuit, still pending, that the oil and gas commission filed against the drilling rules Longmont had established prior to the anti-fracking vote. The commission alleged they’re stricter than state law, which is supposed to take precedence.

The city rules “haven’t prevented anybody from drilling anything,” Wilson argued.  Indeed there is an operator now drilling (not fracking) in Longmont, under a memorandum of understanding establishing setbacks and other restrictions.

He was hoping that the lawsuit would get tossed since courts should deal only with real conflicts, not theoretical ones.  But this week the judge ruled against the city’s motion to dismiss, and it will proceed.

“If we litigate every theoretical intrusion of one government on another government’s prerogatives, we would do little else,” Wilson said.

A non-litigious lawyer, Wilson agrees with Frickey that the existing limits are good guidelines.  Cities are “more and more getting down with these operators locally, working out what they want to do, reaching an agreement, putting it in a contract—and moving on.”

Private agreements, of course, are not what the legislature is about.  It’s about coercion.  It’s not clear who will introduce a bill making drilling more difficult, or when. Last year it was Rep. Su Ryden, D-Aurora, who introduced a bill mandating a 1,000-foot setback.  Since the House was then controlled by Republicans, it never even got out of committee.

Frickey is hopeful that the oil and gas commission will promulgate rules before the end of February that even Democratic legislators can sign off on. But Democratic legislators may not even wait on the new rules before advancing their own proposals, which are likely to be more restrictive.

Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, which involves the use of water and chemicals to remove natural gas from deep beneath the earth’s surface. But opponents now tend to use the terms fracking and traditional drilling interchangeably, because the word fracking scares many people and they in fact want to limit all kinds of drilling.

It’s not so much the process of fracking itself that upsets the enviros.  They simply don’t like coal, oil or even clean-burning natural gas.  They prefer much more expensive “renewable” fuels that can’t produce the energy needed. Strict anti-fracking and drilling rules are a way to shut down carbon fuels.

Those who purport to worry about climate change, nee global warming, work the same way.  Whether it’s natural or anthropogenic doesn’t really matter to them; they just want an excuse to tax carbon and make it less economic.

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for the Colorado News Agency. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.ColoradoNewsAgency.com

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