DENVER — Gov. John Hickenlooper promised a quick turnaround with a “yes” outcome from his newly announced task force to solve Colorado’s growing discomfort around oil and gas drilling.
In a discussion with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, and in a news conference with reporters Wednesday at the Rocky Mountain Energy Summit, Hickenlooper said billions of dollars are at stake if the 18-member task force doesn’t emerge from discussion in the next six months with some proposed legislation, or a “yes” to a solution that allays public concerns.
Recently, he said billions of dollars in investments in Colorado’s economy were on the line with the presence of two anti-oil and gas development ballot issues headed for a public vote.
The task force, announced Monday, was a compromise Hickenlooper orchestrated to get those, and two pro-development initiatives, off the ballot. The anti-development initiatives would have allowed more local control over drilling and more than doubled required setback distances from structures to 2,000 feet.
“I had someone in my office representing two hedge funds, and they were going to invest over $1 billion in Colorado,” Hickenlooper said during a discussion with Herbert before a packed crowd at the Colorado Convention Center. “Had this stayed on the ballot, they weren’t going to invest. If I heard that once, that means there were probably 50 companies making that same decision. Capital will go where there’s predictability and on the expectation they know what’s going to come.”
Hickenlooper told reporters the task force will be assembled with plans of coming up with solutions in the next six month to the conflicts that come between surface and mineral uses. Other rule-making efforts, such as Colorado’s recent methane regulations — seen as the strictest in the nation — took a good nine months to iron out.
“Is six months going to be enough time to get ideas distilled so they can be engaged? I think it is. It is a push,” Hickenlooper told reporters. “There’s only four months of the Legislature. I wanted to get it there as quickly as possible to get it before the Legislature. I wanted to make sure there is enough time for both.”
Hickenlooper said the 18-member task force would be different from the effort earlier this summer to find a legislative compromise to the issues, because it will come from a variety of interested parties.
Politics apparently hampered the recent efforts at a legislative compromise summer designed to keep issues off the ballot.
Hickenlooper said he was confident a diverse group headed up by leaders from local government, environmental groups, oil and gas, agriculture, business and the homebuilding industry, could come up with legislation that would satisfy the conflicts that come with drilling near people’s homes.
One suggestion, he said, was to raise the ceiling on fines to $10,000 a day for violations.
“I guarantee that will get industry’s attention, and they’ll provide safeguards,” Hickenlooper said.
In the absence of a solid plan coming out of the group, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., vowed to return in 2016, asking voters to limit oil and gas development.
Hickenlooper said there was a good chance that wouldn’t happen.
“If we get legislation done, we have a reasonable chance that we’ll settle this for a significant amount of time,” Hickenlooper said. “People will feel they have a voice in their communities and their future.”
While billions are at stake in future investment, he said it’s not worth gambling on when it comes to more than 110,000 industry jobs — many of which don’t require a college education — and an industry that contributes $30 billion a year to the state’s gross domestic product.
“Those are tough jobs to replace in the modern world,” Hickenlooper said. “I’m sure we’d survive and go forth. Would there be disruption of people’s lives and setbacks for people’s households? It would be tough. That would not be done easily. But if 2,000-foot setbacks had passed, the consequences would have been much more significant than people thought and much more far-reaching.”
“I had someone in my office representing two hedge funds, and they were going to invest over $1 billion in Colorado. Had this stayed on the ballot, they weren’t going to invest.
— John Hickenlooper, Colorado governor