Pressure over fracking ban bears down on Fort Collins City Council.

Posted in: Fracking, Misc Water Issues
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Article courtesy by Patrick Malone | February 2nd 2013 |

Where they stand

Four votes are necessary to place a referred measure to ban fracking on the April municipal ballot. Members of Fort Collins City Council polled by the Coloradoan said, while subject to change, their current positions on the referendum are:
Mayor Karen Weitkunat: Undeclared. In the past she has emphasized the city’s good relationship with Prospect Energy, the lone oil and gas company operating in city limits.
Councilman Ben Manvel: Undeclared. Unable to be reached for comment last week because he is out of the country, Manvel voted with supporters of the referendum to advance it when it last came before council.
Councilman Gerry Horak: Undeclared. Horak has questioned council’s authority to reach so far into governance of oil and gas without a statutory change by the Legislature enabling it.
Mayor Pro Tem Kelly Ohlson: Favors the referendum.
Councilwoman Lisa Poppaw: Favors the referendum.
Councilwoman Aislinn Kottwitz: Opposes the referendum.
Councilman Wade Troxell: Opposes the referendum.


Hydraulic fracturing is high-pressure business, and its brunt is being brought to bear on Fort Collins City Council.

In one ear, a line of citizens that stretches to the horizon pleads for a vote to decide whether the city should ban the oil and gas extraction practice known as fracking. In the other, influential institutions — state regulators, the governor’s office and the oil and gas industry — are lobbying for the status quo, a uniform set of state regulations free from meddling by towns and counties that want to write their own rules.

On Feb. 19, council will decide whether to place a referred measure on the April 2 ballot that could ban fracking in Fort Collins. A Coloradoan survey of council members shows that it remains to be seen whether the question will reach the ballot. But this much is certain: Pressure on council members from both sides of the fracking debate is ramping up as the day of reckoning nears.

City Councilman Gerry Horak is in the eye of the storm. On council and in the community, he is regarded as the swing vote that could decide whether the fracking ban reaches the ballot.

“Yes. He is the swing vote on this particular issue,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kelly Ohlson, a staunch supporter of the ballot question and the ban that it would impose. “That would be Gerry.”

Horak insists he hasn’t made up his mind.

“I’m not supposed to know that until the night of the vote,” he said. “I’m still talking to people and gathering information.”

Both sides of the fracking debate are serenading Horak, and he insists that he wants to hear them out before making up his mind.

Last week, Horak received a personal call from the head of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, Matt Lepore, inviting him and city staff that will make recommendations about the ban to council to a closed-door sit-down. Lepore readily affirmed that he was in town to target the swing vote on council with the COGCC’s message that its oversight is sufficient, and city council should not overreach into the commission’s turf.

Gov. John Hickenlooper expressed opposition to expanded local governance of oil and gas during his State of the State speech last month, when he said, “What doesn’t work is a patchwork of rules and regulations.”

The governor and COGCC have a unified stance on regulation of oil and gas. They believe it is the state’s purview and that cities and counties seeking to develop their own, stricter rules are reaching beyond their legal authority, a view shared by the oil and gas industry.

Longmont was the first community in the state to test the waters of ban. Voters there approved one, and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association representing the industry promptly sued. Longmont faces a separate suit by the state that accuses the city of treading on state regulators’ authority by enacting strict land-use rules governing oil and gas development.

Fort Collins council members Wade Troxell and Aislinn Kottwitz oppose the proposed referendum, and the example being set in Longmont is one reason why.

Kottwitz said if a voter-approved ban was overturned in court, it would only serve to undermine anti-fracking activists’ objective of assuring healthy standards for oil and gas development.

“It would draw lawsuits and cost the city money, and for no public benefit,” Troxell said. “By law, we don’t have jurisdiction for what’s down the hole.”

Troxell said the moratorium on oil and gas development within the city and on city-owned land imposed in December and lasting through July is sufficient protection for citizens’ health.

Councilmember Lisa Poppaw, a supporter of the ban, disagrees.

“There’s a lot at stake — health, safety, air quality, water quality,” she said. “A lot of our economy is based on having clean water and having a healthy environment. If you start jeopardizing that, I think you’re going to see a lot of our primary companies leave our area.”

Furthermore, Poppaw and Ohlson agree that the swell of public support for a ban warrants council’s support.

“Since the state fails to adequately regulate this procedure and this industry, it’s important for the people of Fort Collins to make their voices heard to the state Legislature and the governor,” Ohlson said. “This referendum gives them a chance to do that.”

Anti-fracking factions say the upcoming decision on the referendum will have far-reaching political implications for council members.

Rico Moore of the anti-fracking organization Frack-Free Fort Collins said Horak, as the swing vote on council, has the most at stake. His term is up in 2015, when he is eligible to seek re-election.

“He represents one of the most progressive districts in the state (in northwest Fort Collins),” Moore said. “The political consequences for him are pretty big. People are not going to forget about this. If he has any future political aspirations, the significance of this vote for Gerry Horak is huge.”

Fred Kirsch, director of the nonprofit Community for Sustainable Energy and an outspoken opponent of fracking, said the snowballing sentiment in the community will force City Council to pick a side on the issue eventually, because it is not going away.

“At some point, they’re going to have to deal with this,” Kirsch said. “You can’t please the gas companies and the citizens, so they need to decide who they’re going to back.”

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