Gov. John Hickenlooper described the oil and gas industry as an economic partner that has tried to do right by Colorado’s environment in a lunch speech Tuesday.
He spoke at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s Energy Summit in Denver, which continues Wednesday, when candidates to succeed Hickenlooper — Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton — are scheduled to address the annual meeting of energy industry leaders and vendors at the Colorado Convention Center.
“I think it is relevant that we’ve worked very hard in Colorado to make sure that we are protecting property rights and people’s access the resources they own, but at the same time continually moving toward cleaner air, cleaner water (and) holding ourselves to the highest environmental standards,” Hickenlooper told them.
“We’ve tried to stay focused on facts, on listening, on collaboration, and I think we’ve gotten a lot done “
He said his administration had gone through all 24,500 Colorado rules and regulations and either eliminated or simplified almost half of them.
“When you get your rules and regulations lowered, you begin to market that state as a destination for entrepreneurs, not just as a vacation destination,” said the Democratic governor, who has said he is thinking about running for president. “That creates a rising tide that does benefit every industry.”
Hickenlooper said he had worked with many of the oil and gas company leaders in the room to hold the industry to highest environmental standards. He noted he’s the only working geologist in a state rich with minerals who’s ever been elected Colorado’s governor.
Hickenlooper made no direct mention of Initiative 97, the potential November ballot question slapping restrictions on oil and gas operations, in his seven-minute address.
Earlier on the conference’s opening day, 12 Colorado lawmakers on a panel — 12 Colorado lawmakers — eight Republicans and four Democrats — said Initiative 97 goes too far and would cost Coloradans important jobs and tax revenue.
The measure would increase the buffer zone between homes and new oil and gas operations to 2,500 feet from the existing 500 feet.
“Weld County would dry up and blow away,” said state Sen. John Cooke, a Republican from Greeley, minutes after comparing Initiative 97’s potential impact to General William T. Sherman’s devastating burning of Atlanta and March to the Sea during the Civil War.
State Rep. Chris Hansen, a Democrat from Denver, pointed out that Cooke compared the oil and gas industry to the Confederacy.
Colorado Rising, the group pushing to get the setback question on the November ballot, did not immediately respond to a request for a comment.
Proponents say energy operations should be at least 2,500 feet from homes, schools and business for public safety. Residents northeast of metro Denver says the proliferation of wells are endangering their safety and health while degrading their neighborhoods and property values.
Opponents say the proposed setback would make much of the state’s area richest in resources off-limits to harvesting, at the expense of those who own the mineral rights, as well as the energy companies.
Polis led an effort to ask voters to approve 2,000-foot setback in 2014, before withdrawing his support and money, but he is not supporting Initiative 97. He has promised to move the state toward 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, however.
The legislators on stage Tuesday were jokingly called the “Dirty Dozen,” and the press was asked, again jokingly, not to report that.
Asked by moderator Scott Prestidge, COGA’s spokesman, how many of them opposed Initiative 97, 11 of the 12 raised their hands.
They said voters need to realize the state budget can’t withstand the blow of losing the oil and gas industry’s tax revenue and, as Cooke said, thousands of jobs would be lost, taking down housing and other aspects of the local and state economy.
“A lot of my colleagues under the gold dome … don’t understand the magnitude of having this industry go away,” said state Rep. Lori Saine, a Republican from Dacono.
Sen. Angela Williams, a Democrat from east Denver, said she gets calls from constituents whose jobs are tied to the oil and gas industry.
“I think 97 goes too far,” she said. “If it’s going to take away jobs from my constituents, who feed their families and pay their mortgages with these jobs, I think that’s too impactful to this state.”
Colorado Politics was the first to report that state Democratic party leadership committees officially supported Initiative 97, though the party was quick to point out that candidates are not bound by that.
State Rep. Paul Rosenthal, a Democrat from southeast Denver who lost his primary race for re-election this year, said if his party controls the state House, Senate and governor’s office, which his is hopeful for, there will be oil-and-gas legislation on the table when the session convenes in January.
“Hopefully it will be legislation that’s negotiated with the industry and with all interest groups,” he told the gathering. “I think you will probably see some legislation many of y’all will not like … I think you’re going to see some things you might be able to live with and some things you probably won’t.”
Rosenthal said the state’s Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry, has done the most reliable work on regulating the industry, including when it comes to setbacks.
“My hope is we’ll go more in that direction,” he said. “Because that is where the industry and legislat0rs and the governor’s office and the environmental community can all get together and say how do we work together.”
Rosenthal said he had been open-minded about the industry and willing to vote that way. He said it was one of the chief reasons he drew primary opponents and lost party backing, however.
Rep. Hugh McKean, a Republican from Loveland, said he’s certainly not hoping for all-Democratic leadership in the statehouse.
“What I’m worried about is we see less common sense,” he said, explaining that balance usually results when the House is led by one party and the Senate the other; it forces critical review and compromises.
Democrats have a 36-29 majority in the House, while Republicans have only a one-seat edge in the 35-member Senate.
“It really matters what we look like after November, (whether) we get common sense or whether we get an agenda,” McKean said.
Correction: State Rep. Matt Gray did not raise his hand, but he did speak against Initiative 97 in his comments on the panel. “I’m a Democrat from Broomfield who has not endorsed Initiative 97 and whose Republican opponent has,” he said in his opening remarks Tuesday.