Hickenlooper, state legislators throw support behind anxious oil and gas industry

The industry is facing a looming measure that cut put limits on where new wells are placed.

Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks during the Energy Summit luncheon at the Denver Convention Center on Tuesday, August, 21, 2018. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks during the Energy Summit luncheon at the Denver Convention Center on Tuesday, August, 21, 2018. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

By his own count, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s short remarks at the Energy Summit on Monday were the 20th time he spoke before a Colorado Oil and Gas Association-related event.

The summit is a two-day convention sponsored by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. Now in its 30th year, this year’s edition is titled “Growth. Expectations. Opportunities.” and it invites participants to consider the issues the industry faces.

And in Colorado, the industry is facing some big ones.

Perhaps no issue is bigger than the one that could come in the form of a ballot measure prompted by citizen-led Initiative 97. The measure (which is pending ballot approval) would put a 2,500-foot buffer zone between new oil and gas wells from most occupied structures, citing concerns over public health and safety and environmental impacts. If it passes, it could place serious limits on where the oil and gas industry can install new wells.

Hickenlooper got the nod as a keynote speaker during the convention’s Tuesday luncheon. While he didn’t come out and outright say it on Tuesday, he told CPR last week he opposes the measure.

“I think it is relevant that we work pretty hard in Colorado to make sure that we are protecting property rights and equal opportunities to access the resources (in the state),” Hickenlooper said.

Hickenlooper said there needs to be communication and discussion between “local voices” and well operators to ensure minimal impact when potential new drilling projects arise. He said having this relationship is key to having a “social contract” that allows oil and gas, “to be a successful, chiefly important economic factor, or component of our economy here.”

An oil rig in Commerce City, March 9, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

An oil rig in Commerce City, March 9, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

COGA President and CEO Dan Haley said in a statement Tuesday there’s been a lot of excitement over the conference, with registration numbers this year exceeding those from last year. But the elephant in the room is a still a hot topic.

“You’ll hear people talk about Initiative 97 quite a bit during the Summit because it would have a hugely negative impact on our state’s working families and our economy,” Haley said in the statement.

“However, it’s been fantastic to see the growing bipartisan opposition to a 2,500-foot setback measure being expressed during our Energy Summit,” Haley added in his statement. “Many of Colorado’s elected leaders understand that a half-mile setback is simply unworkable, and that opposition is not about politics, but instead about families being able to keep food on the table.”

State legislators also got a chance to weigh in on the initiative. None of them were fans.

At the party levels, the Colorado Republican Party opposes the initiative, while the Colorado Democratic Party last month endorsed the initiative during a meeting.

Yet, those lines weren’t that clear on Tuesday.

During a legislators’ forum featuring 12 state lawmakers from both major parties, the lawmakers were asked if they opposed Initiative 97. All 12 raised their hands, including Denver Democratic legislators state Sen. Angela Williams and state Rep. Paul Rosenthal.

“I believe that Initiative 97 goes too far,” Williams said. “Twenty-five hundred (foot) setbacks is going to have an economic impact on this state that we at the legislature don’t have the money to backfill.”

Rosenthal said realistically, a more imposing threat facing the state is climate change. He added that state’s standards around oil and gas drilling need to be raised, he said.

“This blunt-force instrument is not the way to do it,” Rosenthal said. “It’s all of us working together.”

Safety is important, but so are jobs and economic impact, Williams added.

“If it’s going to take away jobs from my constituents, who feed their families and pay their mortgages on, I think that this just too impactful for this state,” Williams said.

State Rep. Polly Lawrence, a Republican from Parker, speaks during a Colorado legislators panel with 11 other state lawmakers at the Colorado Convention Center on Tuesday, August 21, 2018. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

State Rep. Polly Lawrence, a Republican from Parker, speaks during a Colorado legislators panel with 11 other state lawmakers at the Colorado Convention Center on Tuesday, August 21, 2018. (Esteban L. Hernandez/Denverite)

After the panel, Williams — whose northeast Denver district includes DIA, which is home to active oil and gas wells — warned the initiative could have deeper repercussions in the metro area, including adversely affecting Denver Public School’s funding.

State Rep. Polly Lawrence, a Republican from Parker, said the conversation behind the initiative, “doesn’t have to be confrontational, it can be conversational.”

“It just comes down to having that conversation with your friends, your family, your neighbor, the teacher in your kid’s class, whatever it is,” Lawrence said. “But you need to carry it on to that next step and the next step after that.”

Calling Colorado voters “common sense” folks, Republican state Rep. Cole Wist of Centennial said voters here understand the key role the state’s energy industry plays in the state’s economy.

“When Colorado voters have an opportunity to look at that question, they will soundly reject Initiative 97,” Wist said.

On Wednesday, Colorado’s next governor could weigh in on the setback initiative and its potential impact.

Colorado’s two gubernatorial candidates are scheduled to speak Wednesday at the Energy Summit. Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton are expected to offer their insight on the oil and gas industries biggest issues. Unsurprisingly, their event is sold-out.