Fracking Compromise: Savvy Solution or Sellout?

There's plenty of back-patting going on today in the smoke-free back rooms where politics thrives like spores in agar, after an eleventh-hour deal was forged by Governor John Hickenlooper, Representative Jared Polis and others to remove four initiatives dealing with oil and gas development from the November ballot. The move short-circuits what promised to be a costly and ugly campaign, with plenty of heated rhetoric and exaggerated claims on both sides. But the relief among industry interests hailing this "balanced" compromise is more than matched by the bitterness of grassroots anti-fracking groups, howling that Polis and the "Fracker in Chief" are giving us the business -- again.

See also: "Single Fracking Waste Well Blamed for Hundreds of Low-Level Quakes"

The deal announced yesterday will withdraw two anti-fracking initiatives that had been largely bankrolled by Polis, who's dubbed himself the "poster boy" of the antifracking movement ever since a drilling rig showed up across the road from his Weld County vacation home last summer. In return, Hickenlooper has pledged to form a commission that will paper the legislature with proposals that will help minimize conflicts between the gas industry and neighboring communities -- and to drop a lawsuit the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has been pursuing against the City of Longmont for its fracking ban. Two pro-fracking initiatives will also disappear from the ballot.

Call it a win-win-lose. The Hickenlooper rep for business-friendly, common-sense compromise gets a major reboot just in time for his own reelection battle against Bob Beauprez, whose major grouse has been that the Governor hasn't been taking care of business. Polis gets to withdraw quietly from the fray and claim victory at the same time. The oil and gas industry gets to pocket the $10 million or so it otherwise would have spent on ads extolling the virtues of using the hydraulic fracturing process, which involves pumping vast amounts of water mixed with toxic chemicals deep into the ground to extract clean, marvelous natural gas.

But the environmental and community activists who held fundraisers, gathered petition signatures or otherwise promoted the Polis initiatives aren't quite so ecstatic. "There's quite a bit of shock and outrage from several of the grassroots groups that mobilized their memberships to get these on the ballot, only to be told a half-hour before the announcement that Polis was pulling his support," says Sam Schabacker, regional director for Food & Water Watch.

As noted in last month's feature, "Frack Attack!", polls indicate that Colorado residents are close to evenly divided over fracking, with barely 51 percent of those surveyed in support of the industry -- and growing concerns emerging about earthquakes ties to underground disposal of wastewater, as well as other health and environmental impacts. Fractivists hoped to capitalize on that unease this election season with a host of citizen initiatives pushing for more local control, but only the pair financed by Polis managed to collect enough signatures to make the ballot.

Schabacker notes that no petition initiative in Colorado in recent years has made it on the ballot without the aid of paid signature gatherers. "The lesson here is that our democratic system has been manipulated to the point that you have to have money," he says. "Access to the ballot is quite difficult. It's pay to play."

Several other anti-fracking groups have issued press releases denouncing the deal and expressing skepticism that Hickenlooper's commission will accomplish much of substance. "It's a sad day when politicians subvert the will of the people," states one release, quoting Karen Wagner of Citizens for a Healthy Fort Collins.

As for Hickenlooper's declaration that the state will drops its lawsuit against Longmont's antifracking ordinance, Schabacker is decidedly unimpressed. "Hickenlooper thinks he can score political points by no longer using public money to sue his constituents," he says. "That decision should have been made before there was any negotiation, rather than at the end of it."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast

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