Gov. John Hickenlooper has been a lightning rod for the controversy surrounding oil and gas production in Colorado, specifically the industry's use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to reach natural gas deposits locked in subterranean rock.
On Thursday night, the Democrat discussed the topic as part of the FrackingSENSE lecture series at the University of Colorado.
The former geologist talked about his relationship to the oil and gas industry and how he seeks to be impartial in his decision making.
"I am constantly attacked now for being in the pocket of oil and gas, or somehow subservient to their philosophy or their wish," he said. "The Quakers have a term called 'fair witness,' someone who comes in and they don't have an ax to grind ... and that is what I try to be."
Hickenlooper said the science on the impacts of fracking is far from settled, and the focus should be on getting "better, more persuasive facts." He said once there is an accepted set of facts about fracking, opponents and proponents will have a baseline for reasonable discussion and compromise.
Sponsored by the Center of the American West, CU Continuing Education, Boulder County and the AirWaterGas Research Network, FrackingSENSE seeks to bring in speakers with expertise in the field to discuss "what we know, what we don't know and what we hope to learn about natural gas development."
Thursday's talk was moderated by CU historian Patty Limerick. All questions from the public were submitted on paper.
Hickenlooper said science has made fracking more effective and safer than it was before, with some large oil companies claiming they are nearing a point where 100 percent of the fracking fluid can be recycled.
But he said scientists don't know the impacts of wells on the air, with many opponents claiming gases such as methane leak from wells, damaging air quality and creating health concerns for nearby residents.
He said state officials are working to substantially increase fines for companies whose wells leak or cause an adverse environmental impact. The ultimate goal, he said, is to create a regulatory environment in the state where accidents don't happen because companies cannot afford them.
"If we find unhealthy air quality around a community and something coming out of a well that is an issue, we will put the brakes on faster than you can imagine," he said.
Hickenlooper noted the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission earlier this year approved rules making Colorado the first state to require energy companies to do groundwater testing both before and after they drill wells.
The commission has filed a lawsuit against Longmont for banning fracking.
"When you ban fracking, you really say you are going to supersede the state's authority," Hickenlooper said.
He added that in Colorado, separate people or entities can own surface property rights and subsurface property rights, and to ban fracking would be to deprive some mineral rights holders access to their property.
Hickenlooper said the best thing people can do to make progress on the issue of fracking is to continue talking about it.
"Where progress happens is where people recognize a broader self-interest," he said. "The best and only way that happens long-term is when people are talking with each other and arguing it out."
Two people were removed from the lecture hall for disrupting the talk Thursday night.
A woman was asked to leave for speaking out after Hickenlooper made a joke about people from Houston being accustomed to living alongside the oil industry. The woman contended he was making light of something that was causing serious health issues.
A man was later asked to leave when he stood up and began speaking in the middle of Limerick's question-and-answer session with Hickenlooper.
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