The governor’s Oil and Gas Task Force has only met once, but if it helps reelect Gov. John Hickenlooper and other Democrats, it’s already accomplished its mission.
That’s the take from some analysts and critics, who point to the panel’s lopsided, Democrat-heavy membership and lack of key stakeholders as evidence that the governor is more concerned with keeping Democrats in power than with resolving the pitched debate over hydraulic fracturing and local control.
“This commission exists solely for political purposes. It’s a sham,” said state Sen. Greg Brophy (R-Wray). “This is, ‘We’ve got to buy time. Get me past my election and I’ll have more flexibility.’”
Missing from the 19-member panel are those representing mineral-rights owners or the Colorado Farm Bureau, even though most oil and gas development takes place in rural, agricultural communities. The task force includes a handful of pro-Democrat environmentalists, but no leaders of the state’s anti-fracking movement.
Even so, Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli says the panel achieves two critical goals for Hickenlooper: It reinforces his brand as a centrist who can deliver the tough compromise, and it eliminates a fractious election-year battle over hydraulic fracturing that had threatened to divide Democrats and hobble his candidacy, as well as the bids of other top Democrats like Sen. Mark Udall.
“This has to do with helping the Democratic governor and the Democratic Party because they’re the people who have a very, very divided constituency over this,” Ciruli said. “They’re hoping a combination of kicking it down the road and coming up with another package that essentially adds a little bit of local control with some judicial and other restraints will keep everybody on board and make a ban unacceptable. But there’s a lot of ‘ifs’ in there.”
Among those irked by the task force’s membership is state Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling), who reluctantly agreed as part of the compromise to withdraw his own industry-backed ballot initiative, which would have withheld severance revenues from communities that ban oil and gas development.
He did so as part of an Aug. 4 bargain between Hickenlooper, several oil-and-gas companies, and Democratic Rep. Jared Polis, in which Polis agreed to drop his two anti-fracking ballot measures in exchange for the formation of a task force and the elimination of two pro-industry initiatives, one of which was Sonnenberg’s.
Sonnenberg said he submitted about 15 names to the governor’s office for consideration, but the only agriculture representatives chosen for the panel were those with strong Democratic Party ties: Jim Fitzgerald, a rancher and activist affiliated with the EarthWorks Oil & Gas Accountability Project who has given to Democratic candidates, and Kent Peppler, another Democratic donor who heads the left-of-center Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.
An open-records request found that the Colorado Farm Bureau, Club 20, the Western Landowners Alliance, and the National Association of Royalty Owners also offered panel recommendations, but none were accepted.
“I’m disappointed agriculture didn’t have more [representation], frankly, and that the governor didn’t take hardly any of my ag recommendations,” Sonnenberg said. “With Polis giving his recommendations, I went ahead and submitted a number of names, actually names that served a dual purpose, both local government and agriculture [representatives] that understand oil and gas and also understand local control, and he didn’t take any of those.”
Which panelists were recommended by Polis? A records request found no communication on the task force membership between Polis and the governor’s office, but Sonnenberg said he was told by Hickenlooper that several members were Polis’s picks.
“From my conversation with the governor, yes, Polis got several people on the commission,” Sonnenberg said. “His [Hickenlooper’s] office had called me before the release just to give me a heads-up on what the makeup was going to look like, and I expressed my disappointment to the office, and so he [Hickenlooper] called me following up on that, just trying to justify why they made the choices they did.”
“Considering most of the oil and gas production is on ag land, I thought ag producers should have a huge role on this commission, but it appears that was–how do I say this politely? It appears that was ignored,” Sonnenberg said.
On the other hand, the task force has no shortage of Democrat partisans. The 19-member task force includes 13 panelists who have donated to Democratic candidates, including eight members who contributed to Hickenlooper’s 2010 or 2014 gubernatorial campaigns. There’s a sprinkling of Republicans: former state House Speaker Russ George and Weld County Clerk Steve Moreno, as well as former Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Kourlis, who’s the daughter of a former GOP governor.
“Composition of this group was one of the most critical parts of the process,” Green said, “so the governor looked for a bipartisan and balanced group that represents a wide range of interests, areas and beliefs. Political support and/or donations to any party did not play a factor in this decision.
The governor’s staff sifted through nearly 300 applicants before deciding last month on the task force members. The idea was to have one third of the panelists from local government and environmental groups; one third from the oil-and-gas industry, and one third civic leaders.
The task force’s charge is to propose recommendations to the state legislature on minimizing land-use conflicts between communities and the oil-and-gas industry. The recommendations are due March 2015, and Polis has hinted that another ballot battle could be in the offing if the legislature fails to act.
Polis’s two anti-fracking ballot initiatives—one that would have quadrupled setbacks to 2,000 feet, the other to give localities more control over drilling operations—came after hotly contested campaigns over fracking in six Front Range towns: Boulder, Broomfield, Fort Collins, Lafayette, Longmont and Loveland.
Five of those six communities have approved either moratoriums or local-control measures in the last two years. Gary Wockner, state director of Clean Water Watch, was involved in some if not all of those campaigns, but his application to serve on the task force was also rejected.
“What I would call the fractivist base is not at all represented on that commission,” Wockner told Westword. “The entire issue got to the governor’s attention because of the elections, but none of those people ended up on this panel.”
The only panelist connected to a local-control group, Sara Barwinski of Weld Air and Water, lives in Greeley and wasn’t involved in those campaigns.
Ciruli said the governor’s goal isn’t to reach an accord with the fractivist movement, but to isolate it by coming up with recommendations backed by industry and Democrat-friendly environmental groups that will satisfy Polis–and stop him from funding another anti-fracking ballot campaign in 2016.
“The governor’s strategy here, obviously along with the public relations from this entire effort, is that in the short term, he’s mostly concerned about Nov. 4,” Ciruli said. “The long-term benefit from that strategy is that he will isolate these [anti-fracking] individuals and Polis will not go with them.”
Separating Polis from the anti-fracking movement is important for Democrats because he’s a multi-millionaire with the resources to wage a successful statewide campaign. The risk for Hickenlooper is that a wealthy out-of-state group with no loyalty to the Democratic Party could decide to step in and fund the cause on behalf of the Colorado’s rag-tag fractivists.
Already Littleton fractivist Phillip Doe has submitted paperwork for an anti-fracking initiative on the November 2016 ballot. Cliff Willmeng, who led the successful Lafayette local-control campaign, has vowed to do the same with a Colorado Community Rights Amendment.
“There are some other multi-millionaires and billionaires that could come in and play the Polis role,” Ciruli said.
If that happens, supporters of the oil-and-gas industry may wish they’d taken their chances with Polis. The 2014 mid-term election is trending Republican, which would have presumably worked against the Polis initiatives, but the presidential race will undoubtedly boost turnout in 2016 among younger voters, who are more likely to take up the anti-fracking cause.
“I think we could have won it [in November], and quite frankly I was making the argument that Polis was going to pull his anyway because it is a political liability,” Sonnenberg said. “He was getting pressure from Washington, D.C., he was getting pressure from Mark Udall, and he was getting pressure from our governor here because of the political impacts on the upcoming election.”
Sonnenberg said the polling done by his group showed that Polis’s measures would have lost if they’d qualified for the ballot, while his pro-industry initiative would have won.
“I don’t believe that the anti-fracking threat will ever go away, quite frankly, until we find a way to battle them at the ballot box,” Sonnenberg said. “They’re already talking about 2016 initiatives on oil and gas or anti-fracking, so I don’t think this goes away, and that was one of my frustrations with the agreement. They didn’t get Polis to agree not to run a ballot initiative in 2016.”
Of course, Sonnenberg didn’t make any promises, either. “I assure you if Polis runs his initiatives in 2016,” he said, “mine will be back.”
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