POLITICS

Colo. congressman pulls back from direct role in anti-fracking fight

DENVER -- Environmental activists in Colorado who fell short of putting a measure curbing hydraulic fracturing before voters last year are already back at work on a similar ballot initiative for the 2016 election.

But don't expect Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) to lead that fight.

The fourth-term lawmaker told E&E Daily in a recent interview that while he remains "committed to solving this issue," he has turned his focus to the legislative process rather than the pair of ballot initiatives he personally backed in the 2014 cycle.

But "the issue is urgent," Polis said in a telephone interview, citing constituents who raised concerns about fracking sites near their homes at a recent town hall meeting in his Boulder-based 2nd District.

During the last election cycle, Polis generated controversy in the Centennial State by publicly supporting and helping fund a pair of ballot initiatives that would have amended the state's constitution to restrict -- though not outright ban -- fracking at new oil and gas wells in the state.

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But the measures, one of which would have established a 2,000-foot setback for drilling rigs and another that would have created an environmental bill of rights, never made it to the ballot.

In late summer, with the political temperature rising among both supporters and opponents of fracking, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) announced a compromise deal under which those proposals would be dropped, along with a pair of industry-backed ballot measures that aimed to punish communities that restricted drilling.

Instead, the governor appointed a mix of industry representatives, environmental activists and local officials to a special task force assigned with recommending how best to protect Coloradans who live near existing or proposed oil and gas drilling sites.

While that group finished its work in February, it drew criticism from many of its own members, who lamented that the panel failed to support creating real authority for local communities to determine where new wells could be located.

Instead, the panel backed measures such as increased monitoring for air quality, a health complaint line for oil-and-gas-related concerns, studies on how to reduce well-related traffic and the creation of a state-run information clearinghouse.

While the panel also supported giving local communities more input into siting new wells, it stopped well short of recommending that local jurisdictions have any sort of veto authority in those decisions.

But Polis praised the 21-member task force, a third of which included energy industry representatives, for the "thought and deliberation" in their work.

He also pointed to a minority report included in the group's recommendations to Hickenlooper, adding that he remains hopeful the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the governor will pursue some of the ideas that failed to garner the two-thirds support required of the commission.

"I was thrilled that a strong majority of the commission came up with recommendations that would address the issues that my constituents had," Polis said, although he lamented that the task force's oil and gas industry representatives blocked many of those proposals from receiving the super-majority support required for a formal recommendation and not merely inclusion in the minority report.

In the meantime, activists, including the Colorado Community Rights Network, have already said they will pursue new ballot initiatives in 2016 aimed at curbing hydraulic fracturing in the state.

The CCRN proposal, which fell short of gathering the necessary signatures last year, is among the more stringent proposals, effectively giving communities the right to block any type of industrial activity within their boundaries.

Polis said that he is unfamiliar with any of the ballot measures now being floated for the 2016 election but said he supports the idea that "communities should be empowered" to deal with surface issues like siting and zoning for new wells.

Still, Polis emphasized that he remains opposed to any kind of statewide ban on fracking.

"I've always believed this issue can be best resolved through our legislative process," Polis added, pointing to his sponsorship in the last Congress of both the "Bringing Reductions to Energy's Airborne Toxic Health Effects Act" and the "Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act."

"But if there is a continued unwillingness to address the issue, there are many who will turn to direct democracy," he said.

Political implications hard to read

While Hickenlooper received credit last year for avoiding a potentially nasty fight in his oil-and-gas-producing state by neutralizing the ballot initiatives, the compromise was also viewed as a victory for Democrats, many of whom saw the ballot measures as an unnecessary distraction at a time when the party was fighting tough races, both for the governor's office and a U.S. Senate seat. Some Democrats at the time privately grumbled that by supporting the anti-fracking initiatives, Polis was inadvertently aiding Republicans and industry supporters.

Ultimately, Hickenlooper won his second term while Sen. Mark Udall (D) lost his re-election bid.

In retrospect, Polis acknowledged that the ballot initiatives would have likely boosted turnout in a midyear election among the state's "gas patch" counties, but he added it's not clear such votes could have helped his Senate colleague.

"Certainly there's a lot of voters who care deeply about protecting their homes and their property rights," Polis said. "I don't know where those voters would fall in federal turnout."

Udall lost his re-election bid to Republican Cory Gardner by nearly 50,000 votes.

"The ballot initiative that Polis supported put other Democrats in the state in an awkward position," said University of Denver political science professor Peter Hanson. "They would have raised the issue of how to handle fracking in an election that was already very difficult for Democrats, so other Democrats in the state worried they'd be forced to take a position on it and hurt themselves with one group or another."

But despite Polis' prominent position backing those measures, Centennial State political observers said the lawmaker did not necessarily hurt his standing among fellow Democrats -- particularly if he wants to run statewide at some point.

"I don't think those hard feelings last," Hanson said. "I think politicians tend to be pretty practical when it comes to helping members of their own party win office."

He added that because the compromise occurred more than three months before the November election -- weeks before most voters begin to tune into the potential issues and candidates on the ballot -- many average Coloradoans were likely unaware of the would-have-been initiatives at all.

"The issue had really faded from view prior to election, I don't think there's anyone who thinks the election turned on it," Hanson said. "Whatever difficulties were caused by the initiatives were temporary."

Longtime Polis adviser Rick Ridder, who is president of Denver-based RBI Strategies and Research, argued that the Democratic lawmaker earned respect from his colleagues, both for taking on the oil and gas industry and for recognizing the need for a compromise.

"Jared is clearly in a position where he garnered a lot of respect among the delegation for taking on an issue that was highly meaningful to his constituents, and as one member whom I will not identify said, 'Yeah, if that stuff was happening in my district, I'd be fighting like hell, too,'" said Ridder, who also served as spokesman for the Polis-backed Coloradans for Local Control, one of the groups that sprouted up last year to support the anti-fracking initiatives. "From that perspective, there was very much a sense of they understood why he was doing it."

Dick Wadhams, former chairman of the state GOP and now a Colorado-based Republican consultant, suggested, however, that Polis' decision to strike a deal and step back from the ballot measures could come back to haunt him should the House lawmaker opt to run statewide someday.

"On one hand, he's already got the stain of having essentially said 'I want to kill oil and gas jobs in Colorado,' and then he turned around and basically abandoned the folks who had been banking on his financial support. He kind of created a lose-lose for himself," Wadhams said.

Nonetheless, Wadhams acknowledged that Polis remains an obvious contender in any future statewide races -- such as the 2018 gubernatorial contest or the 2020 election when Sen. Cory Gardner (R) will face his first re-election bid.

"Any member of Congress starts off with a financial and political basis of support to run for a statewide office. And in Polis' case, he brings something to the table most incumbent members of Congress don't, which is he's wealthy," Wadhams said.

Polis is among the richest members of Congress, making his fortune via an online greeting card company and later founding the floral website ProFlowers.com.

"He can self-fund if he wants," Wadhams added. "So he has to be taken seriously if for no other reason than his personal checking account."

While Polis could face a challenge running from the liberal 2nd District base if he were to opt into the Senate race, he would not be the first lawmaker to do so -- Udall won his Senate seat in 2008 after representing the same district.

"I'm not saying it's impossible for Polis to run statewide, but he'll find it's a lot tougher than it was to get elected in the 2nd congressional district," Wadhams said.

Polis, who is in his fourth House term and turns 40 next month, demurs when asked about his own political future.

"I really enjoy the work that I'm doing," he said, pointing to his new assignment on the Natural Resources Committee this session and his seat as ranking member of the Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions.

Pressed on his aspirations, Polis, who was passed over in his bid for the chairmanship of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee late last fall, said, "I don't have any plans other than to serve this term, serving the people of Colorado."

As for any future involvement with anti-fracking measures, a Polis spokeswoman said today that Polis has not ruled out the possibility of pursuing ballot initiatives next year.

"It's premature to be talking about potential ballot initiatives in 2016 given the two lawsuits pending and potential legislative avenues," Polis said in a statement referring to court cases being waged over fracking restrictions in both Longmont, Colo., and Fort Collins, Colo.

Both cities are currently appealing court rulings striking down voter-passed restrictions on fracking after losing challenges from industry and the state's Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

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