John Hickenlooper's Fracking Panel Snubs the Fractivists

Earlier this week, when Governor John Hickenlooper announced the names of the nineteen people selected for a special oil and gas task force intended to address fracking-related land use and health issues across the state, he boasted of the group's "balanced and informed representation." It was as if he was introducing one of those ethnically diverse platoons from old War War II movies: the Italian from the Bronx, the Polish kid from Chicago, the hillbilly from Georgia, the farm boy from Ohio, the Navajo scout, the cigar-chomping noncom from Anytown, USA.

Depending on when they were made, those movies frequently left somebody out of the rainbow commandos -- the Latino, the Asian guy, almost certainly the African American (racial desegregation didn't become U.S. military policy until 1948). And Hickenlooper's group neatly excludes any of the folks who prompted its creation: Conspicuously absent from the task force is anyone who was actively involved in the recent slew of campaigns to promote more local control over fracking and impose bans on drilling in several Front Range cities.

See also: How Colorado became ground zero in America's energy wars

Creation of the task force was a crucial component of the last-minute deal that Hickenlooper forged with Representative Jared Polis and others to remove four fracking intiatives (two pro, two against) from the November ballot. Instead of leaving siting issues such as setbacks up to the voters, the arrangement called for a task force comprised of industry, government and community interests to devise recommendations for future legislation on fracking, the much-disputed but widely used method of hydraulic fracturing of shale formations to extract oil and gas.

The compromise was hailed by industry forces as a reasonable alternative to what promised to be a costly and divisive ballot battle. But it also left a number of grassroots anti-fracking activists, who'd worked on behalf of initiatives initially supported by Polis, howling that the congressman had sold them out for yet-to-be-determined but probably mild concessions to local control.

Some of those same fractivists have even more to howl about now that Hickenlooper has unveiled the full list of task force members, which he described in a prepared statement as "the right group to ensure that Colorado's economy and environment remain healthy and robust." They include six representatives of industry (from Anadarko, Noble Energy, Cirque Resources, Bill Barrett Corp., ConocoPhillips and yes, the Colorado Association of Home Builders); seven representatives of government or former state officials, from former Speaker of the House Russ George to retired Colorado Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Kourlis; and six community/environmental reps, including the president of Western Resource Advocates and the president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.

Yet only one of that last contingent could be considered a community-level activist: Sara Barwinski of Weld Air and Water -- and Weld County, though it contains more than 80 percent of the state's drilling activity, wasn't one of the recent battlegrounds over local control initiatives. The communities that have taken the strongest stand against fracking and the state's regulatory scheme, such as Longmont, Lafayette, Fort Collins and Broomfield, have been shut out entirely.

On one hand, it's hardly a shocker that Hick's panel has snubbed his most vocal critics. You wouldn't invite a pack of strident vegans to serve on the Pork Board, would you? By the same token, you wouldn't want a bunch of fractivists at the Anadarko Christmas party, making a fuss over those pesky earthquakes in Greeley. Many of the anti-fracking activists believe there's no safe way to frack even under the most stringent controls. "In my application, I made it very clear that fracking should be banned," says environmental writer and activist Gary Wockner, who (surprise) was not invited to join the task force.

Yet not everyone involved in the local-control movement -- which was able to pass moratoria or outright bans on fracking in five of six Front Range ballot campaigns, though most of those measures are now being challenged in court -- is quite as intransigent as Wockner. "What I would call the fractivist base is not at all represented on that commission," Wockner says. "The entire issue got to the governor's attention because of the elections, but none of those people ended up on this panel."

It's revealing that Hickenlooper's team was unable to identify anyone involved in those campaigns who belonged in the "right group," and even more telling when you start to examine the political and economic affiliations of those who were invited to the table. As the Fort Collins Coloradan recently reported, twelve of the nineteen appointees are donors to Democratic political campaigns in the state; several are Hick donors. Look closer and you see one "community" rep who's an attorney associated with Polis, a fair number of civil servants not known for rocking boats and only one government health official (Denver Health's Elbra Wedgeworth).

Fair and balanced or a foregone conclusion? The final verdict will hinge on what initiatives the task force ends up proposing in its report next February -- and what the state legislature chooses to do with them.

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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