EDITORIAL: Give statewide fracking mitigation rules the gas before the next gusher

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Colorado’s stumbling oil and gas industry dodged a lethal bullet this week when two potential statewide initiatives failed to make 2016 ballot.

State lawmakers now have an opportunity to protect this critical economic engine in Colorado and at the same time protect the health of the environment and the lifestyles of the people who live here.

Authors of the two proposals failed to collect enough valid signatures to put the questions on the November ballot, Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams said Monday.

One question would have required new oil or gas wells to be at least 2,500 feet from homes and some public buildings — across the state. Oil industry officials said that would prohibit wells on about 90 percent of the state, crushing the oil business in Colorado.

The second question would have allowed cities and counties to ban or limit drilling and fracking.

Oil industry officials and Gov. John Hickenlooper opposed these and other proposed limitations, saying that current state regulation, which supersedes all local rules, already provides protections for everyone concerned.

Of course, they don’t.

Oil companies obviously want more lenient requirements for mitigating noise, appearance and environmental concerns, especially given the falling price of oil and, in some cases, natural gas. More than anything, though, they want consistency and predictability in rules for how far drill rigs need to be from homes or how tall equipment can be. That way, potential wells can be graded for profitability based on the market price of petroleum.

Wells are commonly 8,000 feet deep before going horizontal for a mile or more across an oil-bearing strata. State officials are tugged between oil industry interests — trying to make extraction easier and cheaper, especially in light of a recent drop in crude oil prices — and residents backed by local governments that want more control and oversight to keep rigs as far away from homes as possible.

The problem with statewide regulations, however, is that Colorado’s environment and communities are about as diverse as they come. What makes sense in the wilds of the Western Slope doesn’t make sense less than a quarter-mile from a bustling Aurora neighborhood.

Many have implored state lawmakers previously to provide for common-sense local oversight and money to monitor operations, but political leaders seem intent on allowing the state total control and oversight.

Had either of these measure’s made the state ballot, the chances were very good each would have passed. And while that’s not a concern right now, everyone can be confident that the issue will be back when oil prices rise again and drilling starts in earnest.

Rather than play needless defense, state lawmakers next term should find common-sense compromise solutions now, ending this controversy once and for all. The ability to require practical mitigation in circumstances unforeseen by omnibus rules is the only thing that makes sense.