EDITORIAL: Legislature drills into deep trouble bypassing fracking compromise bill

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Colorado lost its best chance to protect both the rights of homeowners and the state’s vital oil and gas industry this week when legislators killed a bill offering a real, workable compromise between competing interests.

Republicans enlisted the help of fellow Democrats Monday to kill House Bill 1355, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Su Ryden, of Aurora, and Mike Foote, of Lafayette.

It was a short-sighted mistake the oil and gas industry will likely come to regret.

For the past few years, oil industry proponents have dug in deep against any effort to allow for local control of drilling rights, arguing that oil and gas is like all other state-protected mineral rights. Meanwhile, a huge increase over the past several years in drilling and fracking operations near urban and developed areas has seen pushback from homeowners and urban officials. They argue that the highly industrial use should fall under local control to ensure the rights of neighboring residents who have to live with the highly mobile operations.

Colorado has been at a stalemate to balance those rights for years. Among threats of statewide ballot issues from anti-fracking proponents, plummeting oil prices, and outright fracking and drilling bans enacted or threatened by a handful of Front Range cities, state lawmakers and officials haven’t been able to produce anything resembling a compromise that protects developer and homeowner interests.

Colorado’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is moving slowly, too slowly, through a laundry list of recommended changes as part of an attempt to compromise, but leaders of groups protecting the rights of homeowners say they’re not enough anyway.

The bill killed this week would have allowed counties, towns and cities to impose local zoning codes on oil operations in their jurisdictions in allowing them to regulate things like setbacks from homes, structure height, masking, noise and odor. It’s not too much to ask .

Oil and gas production is unlike any other protected water and mineral rights in that technology allows for operations to be set up relatively inexpensively and just about anywhere in the state. The compromise bill wouldn’t permit cities to ban the use outright, but it would allow local officials and experts to determine what’s best at each and every drilling site.

Opponents argue that state regulators can and would do the same thing. If they had or could, the move to get meaningful control over these industrial operations would have fizzled long ago.

What drilling industry proponents overlook is the vast and extreme environmental, demographic and socioeconomic contrasts across Colorado. There is no acceptable one-size-fits-all set of rules, regulations and practices that address a rig several feet away from a home in northeast Aurora and a different type of rig in the high, rural plateaus of western Colorado. Statewide standards tempered by local management is the only way to create an acceptable solution to both sides without endangering either one.

Opponents of the measure say Colorado must first wait for the state Supreme Court to decide the local banning cases. It’s an excuse to buy time hoping that with reduced production caused by falling oil prices, fracking and drilling opponents will lose interest.

They won’t. Instead, oil industry proponents now risk a much less compromising state ballot initiative that will be easier to pass because far fewer jobs and rigs are at risk because of depressed prices.

It’s not too late to try again.