Special session prospects dwindle, with little Weld support for 'local control'

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By Jeremy Johnson

 WELD COUNTY — Officials from at least two southern Weld County communities have indicated — either verbally or through their actions — they are against a series of highly disputed oil and gas industry measures possibly slated to appear on the November general election ballot.

Of Dacono, Firestone, Frederick and Fort Lupton, city officials from the latter have taken what is perhaps the staunchest stand against those measures, which aim to allow municipalities to ban fracking outright, while also implementing “setback” distances for new wells that are up to three times the distance of current regulations. 

Fort Lupton City Council at a meeting June 16 voted to join forces with Coloradans for Responsible Reform, a nonprofit group trying to keep those regulatory measures — which they contend supersede state law — off the November ballot. 

The measures — several of which were drafted with assistance from U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, who famously got involved after a drilling operation cropped up across from his vacation home — have been hotly contested across the state and even across party lines, further polarizing proponents and opponents of the measures.

To the chagrin of “fractivists” and other anti-industry contingencies, Gov. John Hickenlooper has lobbied for a compromise and a potential special legislative session that would keep the measures off the ballot. Both sides in early June were close to reaching that compromise, with both Polis and petroleum producing giants Noble Energy Inc. and Anadarko Petroleum Corp. supporting the revised bill. But in the end, other players from both sides ultimately voiced enough opposition to the compromise proposal, leaving them ballot-bound for now.

Experts say the measures could create a campaign war with a budget in the tens of millions of dollars — a battle that has already begun. On June 23, an industry-supported committee called Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy, and Energy Independence aired a pair of television ads with a bipartisan message of support from the likes of former Republican governor Bill Owens and former Democratic governor Roy Romer.

Those who support the oil and gas industry and what it brings to their municipalities said defeating the measures could help keep intact an economic infrastructure and industry that has funneled millions into the local economy.

Local impact

There’s likely nary a city official or town representative in all of Weld County who embraces stricter oil and gas industry regulations. After all, oil and gas has been kind to the biggest county in the state: Weld County had the largest percentage increase in employment in the entire United States in 2013 with a 6-percent increase compared to the 1.8-percent nationwide standard. 

Fort Lupton Mayor Tommy Holton has not been shy about his feelings toward the oil and gas industry. While Holton did not comment directly to an email requesting his opinion of the measures, the first-term mayor has spoken candidly in the past about how oil and gas has helped support his city and his family. And in a discussion in early June, Holton said “we have a good relationship with oil and gas,” and credited the revenue from energy development as a turning point for what was previously a sagging local economy.

“It’s making a huge impact on the city’s — and the county’s — revenue,” he said.

Holton said the industry also has contributed to rebuilding Fort Lupton’s infrastructure, and in recent meetings he and council members have discussed calling on locally involved oil and gas companies to help fund road repairs.

And perhaps the most telling statement Holton makes in regard to the industry has to do his mode of transportation: His vehicle is fueled by natural gas.

Aside from helping eradicate unemployment in Fort Lupton, the oil and gas industry is also the impetus behind a boom in local industry training and education. Jeff Reynolds, dean of instruction for Aims Community College in Fort Lupton, said the industry helped prompt last year’s campus expansion and is at least partially responsible for a 50- to 75-percent enrollment increase over the summer, and a comparable projected enrollment increase come fall.

Measures are ‘anti-growth’

Firestone Mayor Paul Sorensen, who serves in another of many oil and gas hubs to the east and north of Fort Lupton, said oil and natural gas has proven to be “one of the key industries in our region for job creation, and an important part of revenue for our state’s budget.”

He said Colorado already has some of the strictest industry regulations, and added that in his six years as mayor, O&G companies — particularly the heavy hitters like Anandarko, Encana, Noble and Synergy — have proven themselves through their record of professionalism, transparency and safety.

“In addition, their employees and families also live in our community,” Sorensen added.

Sorensen contends that, specifically, setback distances in the proposed measures — setbacks are the distance between an active well and an occupied building or structure — are “arbitrary” and dismissive of the industry’s perspective.

“Setback distances have been under attack in recent years,” he said. “Last year the distance was arbitrarily changed to 500 feet. Now groups want that distance set to 1,500, 2,000 and even 2,640 feet with no justification or financial impact study.

“These distances would limit drilling, but would have a bigger impact on development in our region,” he added. “These are anti-growth initiatives, as well as anti-oil and gas.”

Meanwhile, AJ Euckert, city administrator of Fort Lupton’s western neighbor, Dacono, said they have not been closely monitoring the measures or, for that matter, the industry as a whole.

He said industry leaders themselves have instead taken the reins by working with residents and addressing complaints or concerns directly.

“It’s worked well so far on that front,” he said. 

Euckert played down the oil and gas industry’s impact on Dacono, and said they don’t have a lot of development as seen in bigger cities such as Greeley. In regard to existing development, he said most drilling “isn’t taking place near residential areas or in our back yards.”

And when it is, Euckert said oil and gas companies are listening to residents’ input and “being pretty up front about it.

“They’re good community neighbors,” he said, adding that the bigger the company the more they adhere to regulations, safety standards and general principals of transparency. “It seems like the operations who do the bare minimum seem to give everybody a bad name. But most companies know it doesn’t do any good to upset the people in your neighborhood.”

Infringing on constitutional rights?

Sorensen said he feels much of industry regulating should be left to the experts — the industry itself — and he added that he believes in local controls, but only in terms of allowing individual municipalities to provide their own safety measures.

“I believe a solution for many of the safety concerns would be to allow municipalities the right to contract air quality companies or hire employees trained in monitoring wells for emissions,” he said. “This financial burden would be covered by an impact fee for each active well head. 

“This removes the burden from the state and gives the safety monitoring to the municipalities,” he added. “Control for well locations should continue to be controlled by the industry due to the complexity of the industry.”

That viewpoint is a far cry from industry opponents who would like to see individual municipalities given the right to ban fracking outright, something five municipalities in the state have already succeeded in doing. Most recently, however, a measure to do so in somewhat liberal-leaning Loveland was defeated in the June 24 election, leading some pundits to wonder if the proposed measures represent the attitude of the voting majority.

Sorensen also questioned the legal validity of fracking bans.

“Banning drilling is preventing the constitutional rights of the mineral right owners’ access to retrieve their property,” he said. “I cannot believe a ban would ever pass a constitutional challenge.”

Sorensen urges his contingents to be well informed before making any decisions, and said Firestone’s website (www.cifirestone.co.us) contains “many educational resources” that can help.

“I believe the more you know, the better informed you will be when asked to vote on oil- and gas-related initiatives,” he said. 

Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Johnson at 303-659-2522, ext. 217, or jjohnson@metrowestnewspapers.com.