Voter initiatives multiply during oil boom

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DENVER (AP) - Voter initiatives to control oil and gas drilling are intensifying in Colorado as residents of towns and cities try to ban or limit drilling inside city limits.

So far, Front Range residents have proposed 17 state ballot measures to bolster local control over drilling, and at least four lawsuits are pending.

Natural gas production is slowing, but oil production in Colorado is setting records, up from 49 million barrels in 2012 to 63 million barrels in 2013. The key question before the courts and voters is how far cities and towns can go to shield residents. Under current law, the state has control over developing oil and gas wells, which are springing up around communities. Several lawsuits over local control are pending.

Coloradans for Local Control campaign adviser Rick Ridder is among those fighting industry groups that include a new group - Protecting Colorado’s Environment Economy and Energy Independence - that has been formed with $2 million in industry funding to oppose any change in the state constitution on issues already addressed by existing state rules.

“It all comes out of citizen’s sentiments that they have a lack of ability to control what goes on with oil and gas drilling in their communities, in their neighborhoods, close to schools or close to hospitals. This is a citizen response to the activities the oil and gas drilling,” Ridder said last month.

The industry groups argue that a patchwork of laws in local communities would make energy development a bureaucratic mess.

Attorney General John Suthers told the Denver Post (http://tinyurl.com/kv8kzp2 ) he is still waiting on a court decision to determine how far cities and towns can go to shield residents under current law, which establishes an overriding state interest in developing oil and gas. A state lawsuit against limits in Longmont has not been decided.

“If the court says Longmont is free to ban fracking … that is an earth-shattering reversal by the court,” Suthers told the newspaper.

The 17 proposed ballot measures fall into two groups: one that would amend the constitution to allow tighter local control over oil and gas operations, and another that would require buffer zones statewide up to five times bigger than the 500-foot limit set by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

If any voter initiative passes and gives locals power to prohibit owners of oil and gas from extracting it, “a huge consideration will be whether this will amount to a ‘taking’ of that property by the government,” Colorado Municipal League attorney Geoff Wilson said.

“If that’s the case, a proposal to ban drilling may amount to a proposal that local taxpayers purchase all the affected mineral rights. That could easily make this popular political and policy choice a very expensive one for local taxpayers,” Wilson said.

Colorado Oil and Gas Association policy director Doug Flanders said companies are focused on building rapport and working toward solutions with communities and stakeholders.

“We will continue to do that - whatever is on the ballot,” he said.

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Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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