Colorado oil-and-gas rules no longer hot-button issue in governor race |

Colorado oil-and-gas rules no longer hot-button issue in governor race

The Denver Post

The political controversy over new oil and gas drilling rules, which dominated the gubernatorial campaign a few months ago, has fizzled, as the Democrat vying to replace Gov. Bill Ritter has signaled a more conciliatory stance toward the industry.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes has said he would gut the rules as one of his first orders of business.

Scott McInnis, a GOP candidate who opposes most of the rules, repeatedly hammered Ritter about the drilling regulations last year, and the issue promised to be one of the most contentious of the campaign.

But when Ritter dropped his re-election bid, Democrat John Hickenlooper, a former geologist and businessman, entered the race.

Hickenlooper has criticized Ritter’s rule-making process and said he is “coming from a very different place than Gov. Ritter” on oil and gas issues. And the Denver mayor said he’s willing to respond to industry concerns as long as any rule changes don’t harm the environment.

“If there is a way to cut red tape and move things along in different regions in the state,” Hickenlooper is willing to do so, said his spokesman George Merritt.

This more industry-friendly attitude has changed the dynamics of the debate.

“Hickenlooper has clearly taken the edge off what was going to be a powerful issue for McInnis,” said Denver political consultant Floyd Ciruli. “The drilling issue still speaks to McInnis’ constituents on the Western Slope, but it may not reach much farther than that.”

Sean Duffy, spokesman for McInnis, a six-term former congressman, said the campaign will continue to call for revisiting the oil and gas rules, and use Hickenlooper’s positions against him to portray a lack of leadership.

“He said he’s open to concerns from the industry about the rules and regulations, but where was he when they were being debated? It’s like saying he isn’t for tax increases, but never said anything when they were being considered,” Duffy said.

Pointing to Hickenlooper’s experiences as a brewpub owner and mayor, Merritt said the mayor’s leadership experience “speaks for itself.”

Since the state legislature last year approved new drilling rules aimed at protecting public health, wildlife and the environment, opponents have argued that the regulations killed jobs and slowed energy production. Backers of the rules contend the slowdown stemmed from the recession and declining gas prices.

Despite the controversy, the oil and gas industry has been able to work with the state in implementing the rules, said Stan Dempsey, the president of the Colorado Petroleum Association.

– Karen Crummy/The Denver Post

“We’re taking a positive approach to making rules work,” Dempsey said, noting that while the changes were significant, his group was not actively seeking their repeal. “When issues come up, we discuss them. We all want timely and effective issuance of permits.”

The state has been working on streamlining the permit process. The average time for permit approval has dropped from 96 to 25 days.

Hickenlooper may irk some in the environmental community with his position on the oil and gas rules, but it’s hard to see those interests desert him, Ciruli said, noting that he expected environmentalists to “downplay this issue.”

Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, said she didn’t believe the rules were in jeopardy of being changed, regardless of who is elected the next governor.

“This political controversy is yesterday’s news,” she said. “People have moved on and are focused on the implementation of the rules.”

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