Anti-fracking vote mixed blessing for Colo. governor

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LOVELAND, Colo. | Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is a strong supporter of hydraulic fracturing, but Tuesday’s defeat of a local anti-fracking initiative wasn’t good news for him or state Democrats.

Bucking a trend in recent local votes, Loveland voters rejected Question 1, which would have placed a two-year moratorium on the booming energy-drilling technique within the city limits, by 52 percent to 48 percent.

Unfortunately for Mr. Hickenlooper, the Loveland vote may have convinced those in Colorado’s surging oil-and-gas industry that they can win at the ballot box in November, when they’re expected to face two statewide anti-fracking measures backed by multimillionaire Democratic Rep. Jared Polis.

That would foil Mr. Hickenlooper’s plan for a compromise over the state’s heavily contested energy future, under which Mr. Polis agrees to drop his anti-fracking initiatives in exchange for more state regulations on the oil and gas industry.

The last thing Mr. Polis‘ fellow Colorado Democrats want is an expensive statewide anti-fracking fight, which would expose the party’s rift on oil-and-gas development, risk alienating their allies in the environmental movement, and endanger the re-election bids of Mr. Hickenlooper and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall.

The “upshot” from the Loveland vote “is the business community is going to be even less inclined to come up with a compromise. I think their confidence level is going to go up substantially,” said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. “No. 1, they’ve already given up a tremendous amount in terms of the regulations, and the compromise that was offered is more than they believe is appropriate. Second, they now believe that they can beat these folks.”

Voters in five Colorado municipalities have approved anti-fracking measures in the past 18 months, but those communities were mostly college towns known for their liberal politics, such as Boulder, Lafayette and Fort Collins.

Loveland is different because it’s “purplish,” in the words of Loveland city spokesman Tom Hacker, and therefore much more representative of swing-state Colorado, with its even divide between Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters.

For Loveland, the initiative wasn’t purely hypothetical. Anadarko Petroleum has proposed drilling a handful of wells on the town’s eastern outskirts, whereas the other communities have little or no oil-and-gas development underway.

The Loveland vote took place on the same day as a number of hard-fought Republican primaries, which probably drew more GOP voters. Democrats had almost no contested primaries.

“You obviously have a much more conservative and probably business-sensitive electorate,” said Mr. Ciruli. “But frankly, that’s probably what the statewide election in November is going to look like. It is not going to look like Boulder, or even downtown Fort Collins. It’s going to look a lot more like what just happened in Loveland.”

Mr. Hickenlooper has labored for weeks to fashion a compromise on the issue, with some success: Mr. Polis recently agreed to drop his initiatives in exchange for a bill that would give localities more authority over drilling activity, which is regulated by the state.

But the bill would have to be approved by the state legislature in the next few months, and so far Mr. Hickenlooper hasn’t convened a special session — which means he doesn’t have the votes to pass the legislation.

Without that compromise bill, state Democrats face an already uphill election stuck in the middle of a high-priced battle between the business community and the environmental movement.

Be that as it may, Mr. Polis isn’t backing down. Nick Passanante, campaign director for Polis-backed Safe Clean Colorado, said in a statement after the vote that the industry “should certainly be running scared as we head toward the ballot in November.”

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