Mike Littwin: The big drilling bill, stalled
May 8, 2014
The big news out of the Legislature is that the would-be fracking compromise bill is dead, a victim of bad clock management.
The bill had to be introduced by Monday to have any chance of being done by Wednesday, the last day of the session. But of course, it was too late in the session to get such a complicated bill passed. If the Democrats had the votes — and I don’t think they did — the Republicans would have countered a last-minute Democratic cram-down with an end-of-session slow-down, which would have put the kibosh on about 100 bills that still are pending. And in any case, there are Democrats on the right and left — pro-oil-biz and pro-local-control — who were in no hurry to rescue Gov. John Hickenlooper’s compromise.
And so, the would-be bill never was introduced, which, as all those legislative experts could tell you, guaranteed it wouldn’t be passed.
But here’s my guess: The big news very well may be wrong.
Oh, it was bad clock management, all right. And the issue, which covers a lot of spoiled and unspoiled ground, definitely is complicated. And yes, it couldn’t possibly get done by the end of the session.
And if we haven’t mentioned it before, the problem is as much about process as it is about policy, making matters even more difficult. There are so many groups that conceivably are affected by this issue, going well beyond environmentalists versus oil and gas companies, that a compromise always has been a long shot.
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But since the Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, really can’t afford to let the local-control initiatives go to the ballot in a tough election year, they can’t let the compromise die. They have no choice unless they want to invite oil companies to spend tens of millions of dollars on TV ads calling Democrats job-killers while saying that local control just doesn’t work — oh wait, that was Obamacare that just doesn’t work, but you get the picture. Inevitably, Democrats would be tarred as anti-fracking instead of pro-fracking-regulation.
And if there really is no choice for Democrats, then the only choice, if they can scare up the votes, is the dreaded special session.
We’re already hearing hints from the Hickenlooper administration. And you can bet it’s unanimous for those in the Udall campaign. And then there’s Rep. Jared Polis, who forced the issue by saying he would put up big money in support of the initiatives, even if it means risking an intra-party battle. But Polis has said he is willing to see this thing settled legislatively.
The risks involved in going the initiative route, for both the oil and gas people and for the local-control people, are huge. That alone opens the door for Hickenlooper to craft the best compromise he can with the many stakeholders, a word I swear never to use again, and then leave it to the opposing sides to decide: Is the compromise better than the risk of losing?
The Denver Post got ahold of one of the early drafts last week, in which local governments would be able to regulate noise, impose setbacks and do their own inspections. Hickenlooper needs some buy-in from the oil industry and much more buy-in from the local-control wing of his party.
One of the barriers to compromise is that no one trusts anyone. We can start with the oil companies, who have, well, a string of oil wells under their feet and still have big-footed their way into communities where the resulting uproar was entirely predictable. Put aside the possible health issues or the possible water issues or all the other possible issues, and just get to the annoyance issue. What were these guys thinking?
So, no one trusts the oil companies. And Hickenlooper, who needs to be the honest broker here, is the ex-geologist with a (fracking-juice) drinking problem. Many environmentalists don’t trust him.
Polis, who got involved because someone in the oil industry was dumb enough to frack on his property, is a guy who doesn’t necessarily play well with others. But he is often effective. And he’s on the right side — with communities who do have a real stake in this, many of them in his district. But if some Democrats are annoyed with Polis — who insists, unaccountably, that local control on the ballot will help Democrats like Udall — Republicans are busy calling Polis a terrorist, which suggests, at minimum, a lack of trust and also a lack of manners.
And then there’s state Rep. Frank McNulty, who says Republicans are ready to compromise. McNulty, you’ll recall, was House speaker when he sabotaged the civil unions bill, for, as it turned out, no good reason. One Democrat told me that McNulty, who strongly supports Cory Gardner, saying he is willing to help is code for meaning he is hoping to sabotage the bill.
That’s a lot of mistrust to overcome. And special sessions are not exactly a sure thing, as Hickenlooper can attest from the not-so-special session that followed the civil unions debacle.
But if Hickenlooper actually can get the votes for a local-control compromise — also not a sure thing — state legislators can start gearing up for more May Madness. They’ll be heading for overtime.