Aug. 23–If there was any question about whether the issue of oil and gas drilling close to Colorado neighborhoods may prove to be a flashpoint in the race for governor this fall, it was put to rest Wednesday when three people interrupted Democratic hopeful Jared Polis as he gave a speech at an industry conference in Denver.
The hecklers, two men and a woman, separately approached the stage where the Boulder congressman was addressing an audience at the 2018 Energy Summit, put on by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, and asked him whether he was doing enough to protect against hydraulic fracturing near homes.
They were quickly shouted down by the crowd and escorted from the room. Polis waited for the disruptions to die down before resuming his speech.
“In spite of the challenges we face, Colorado’s economy remains today the envy of the nation. And if we want to keep it that way, we can’t ignore the role that the oil and gas industry has played in our growth, or the significant wages and tax revenue it creates in our state,” he said. “But neither can we ignore the conflicts between homeowners and operators, between surface rights and mineral rights, between state government and local government.”
Looming over the gubernatorial race is Initiative 97, a measure that is awaiting approval from the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office to be on the Nov. 6 ballot. The measure aims to increase the distance new oil and gas wells need to be from homes and schools to 2,500 feet from the current 500-foot and 1,000-foot setbacks, respectively.
Critics of the measure say it will box out more than 80 percent of non-federal land in the state from drilling, while its backers say that an intensive industrial activity like energy extraction needs to be moved further away from where people live, work and play. Both Polis and his Republican opponent, state treasurer Walker Stapleton, have come out against Initiative 97.
On Wednesday, Polis said the initiative “would all but ban fracking in Colorado” and is the “wrong solution for Colorado.” But Stapleton, who spoke before Polis at the Energy Summit, criticized his opponent for getting behind a number of proposed ballot initiatives in 2014 — one of which would have stretched the minimum distance between wells and buildings to 2,000 feet.
“As a numbers guy, I know 2,500 is not 2,000, but it also isn’t too far off,” Walker told the crowd of several hundred gathered inside the Colorado Convention Center. “Ask most operators and they will tell you the difference is negligible but the result is the same: the energy industry being driven out of Colorado. This is nothing more than a jobs killing measure plain and simple.”
Independent political analyst Eric Sondermann said there is no doubt that Initiative 97 “is going to be a major issue in this campaign.” And Polis, he said, will have the thinner wire to dance on, given that plenty of Democrats embrace increased drilling buffers while Stapleton’s supporters are generally united in their opposition to the concept.
“Polis needs to attract the votes of people who both support the measure and oppose the measure, as he tries to hold together his coalition,” Sondermann said. “It’s a more challenging and contentious issue for him.”
Stapleton also criticized Polis for not coming out in full favor of the Jordan Cove project, a yet-to-be-approved facility in Oregon that would receive by pipe natural gas drilled on the Western Slope for export overseas.
“Congressman Polis tries to claim he has environmental concerns about the project, but when it comes to balancing environmental concerns and the need for growing our economy, we must remember these two goals are not mutually exclusive,” Stapleton said Wednesday.
Polis told the Grand Junction Sentinel last week that his opponent was using the Jordan Cove issue as a “political bludgeon” and that more analysis needs to be done to study the environmental impacts versus the economic benefits of the project.
Polis spokeswoman Mara Sheldon criticized Stapleton for attacking Polis in his speech, saying Polis had taken the high road. She also noted that Polis has picked up the backing of the Pipefitters Local 208, which represents a number of workers in the oil and gas sector.
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