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Colorado House Democratic leader KC Becker endorses stricter oil and gas setbacks

The endorsement from Becker gives a high profile boost to an initiative that’s drawn the ire of the oil and gas industry

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Colorado House Majority Leader KC Becker told The Colorado Sun she has endorsed a ballot initiative to establish a half-mile buffer between oil and gas drilling and homes, making her the first high-ranking elected official in the state to do so.

KC Becker

The endorsement from Becker — a Boulder Democrat who is the leading candidate to become the next House speaker if her party retains control of the chamber — gives a high profile boost to an initiative that’s drawn the ire of the oil and gas industry and state business leaders, who have warned of disastrous consequences if the effort passes.

The measure, called Proposition 112, would prohibit new oil and gas drilling within 2,500 feet of homes, schools, parks and water sources, such as lakes and streams. The existing setback is 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools. Current drilling activities would not be affected.

In an interview, Becker said the proposal wasn’t perfect — “I personally would have written it very differently” — but “because the legislature hasn’t been able to make change in even very modest ways, it’s not in our hands any more.

“Ultimately, I feel like I have to stand with my constituents,” she added. “My district is very clear on where they are with this.”

Backed by a coalition of community and environmental groups, the measure is the culmination of years of escalating tensions between the growing Front Range and an expanding oil and gas industry that — thanks to fracking and other new technology — has been encroaching closer to neighborhoods and schools.

Those tensions have boiled over into annual fights at the legislature, where lawmakers have tried to balance the public safety concerns of residents with the business interests of one of the state’s largest industries. But bipartisan talks have invariably broken down on issues ranging from setbacks to capping orphaned wells and mapping flow lines.

“I think there’s got to be a reckoning of that,” Becker said of the unresolved concerns of residents. “…What I don’t want is to end up right where we’ve been all along on this, which is the oil and gas industry is growing in Colorado, and when additional communities … get impacted, they speak up and speak out, and oil and gas continues to oppose any real change.”

Supporters say the proposal would offer schools and neighborhoods some future protection from an array of health hazards, ranging from air and water pollution to explosions from uncapped flowlines, like the one that killed two people in Firestone in 2017.

Opponents say it goes too far. A Colorado Oil and Gas Commission analysis found that it would effectively ban drilling in as much as 85 percent of the state’s non-federal land. And some analysts say it could cost tens of thousands of future jobs.

Aside from Becker, the state’s most prominent Democrats have largely been distancing themselves from the setback proposal. Gov. John Hickenlooper opposes it, and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the party’s gubernatorial nominee, has said he won’t support it. Polis once backed a 2,000-foot setback, but no longer supports that either — a testament to how politically potent the issue is in Colorado.

Protect Colorado, a campaign group created in opposition to the measure, has already raised $17 million to defeat it.

“I think the fact that both (Republican gubernatorial candidate) Walker Stapleton and Jared Polis agree on this when they agree on so few things shows how bad this measure is for the state,” said Karen Crummy, a spokeswoman for the group.

Meanwhile, the industry is backing a risky ballot measure of its own, supporting a constitutional change, Amendment 74, sponsored by the Colorado Farm Bureau that would require state and local governments to reimburse property owners any time a new law or regulation diminishes the market value of someone’s property — including minerals, such as oil and gas.

That could leave taxpayers on the hook for millions — or even billions — in damages for routine policy-making functions, such as zoning, permitting and environmental and water regulations. The nightmare scenario for state officials is that both pass, and a court rules that the state has to reimburse oil and gas companies for all the money they could lose under the new setbacks.

Becker said she thinks it’s unlikely both measures will pass, given the growing chorus of opposition from top state leaders and business groups.

“If anything comes out of this — what I hope comes out — is a willingness for all sides to come forward and say this isn’t working,” Becker said.