Howling at the Moon: Last Chance for the Industry/State Partnership?

On the day of the harvest moon, Colorado Governor Hickenlooper released the names and the general mandate for his “blue ribbon” commission on oil and gas drilling.  Formed to avoid ballot issues this fall that would have allowed communities to determine if, and how, they would host oil and gas operations, the commission is formally tasked with addressing the siting of oil and gas facilities so as “to ensure that Colorado’s economy and environment remain healthy and robust.” Hardly a mandate to inspire, it represents the continuation of the state and fossil fuel industry collaboration that has brought us to the current state of political affairs. 

Missing from this mandate (and the commission membership) are the two issues that would fundamentally change the industry/state partnership: 

  • local democratic decision-making, and
  • climate. 

And yet the former has been the driver for the Colorado politics that the governor is trying to avoid, as hundreds of thousands of Coloradans signed petitions in support of increased local control this summer.  And the latter has been driving the one area of federal environmental regulation of this industry that has actually expanded in the past 8 years.

One might think it hard to ask for a better state than Colorado for a modest commission reform of the industry/state partnership to succeed. Colorado has:

  • arguably taken the most robust steps to regulate oil and gas without significant restriction on industry access,
  • a liberal governor (except when he talks about the oil and gas industry), and
  • larger industry players who see their future profits contingent upon better regulation.

But history shows otherwise. Colorado has had 8 years of statutory changes and rulemakings, all trying to ‘fix’ the problem of environmental, health and community impacts from oil and gas development: changing the agency’s mission, wildlife buffers, surface owner accommodation, hydraulic fracturing disclosure, groundwater monitoring, setbacks, spills, air emissions and penalties

Even so, the push for change at the ballot box has increased, not decreased.

The political calculations for the make up of the commission appear to be that, unlike the governor’s last task force on the issue, an effort by non-agency, non-elected, carefully screened individuals might solve the problem of an industry that has never produced oil or gas without harming workers, communities or the environment.  There is certainly long experience in some Commission members with the impacts of oil and gas exploitation, but missing are voices that might say ‘no, thank you, we choose not to have drilling in our community, as you cannot demonstrate that you do no harm’, or ‘no, thank you, we think more oil and gas development simply gets in the way of moving to a 21st century renewable energy economy’. 

Given the limited mandate and commission make-up, it is difficult to see how this last, best attempt at reform of the ‘oil and gas trumps everything’ regulatory framework will change the larger political push that brought it into being.

Ultimately the true measure of this commission will be simple. If it offers ways that local communities can decide for themselves if they want to live with oil and gas development, it will be a success.  Anything short of that will just be howling at the moon.