DENVER—Mike King is Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s right-hand man when it comes to one of his state’s most contentious issues: fracking. As executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, King oversees the state’s oil and gas regulatory regime, which is facing pushback from environmentalists and residents alike as its oil and gas industry booms. The state, which has always been among the country’s top 10 oil-and-gas-producing states, has more than doubled its oil production and experienced a 30 percent increase in natural-gas production since 2005.
National Journal Daily visited King’s office, next door to the Capitol building, a day after the Nov. 5 election to get his take on the anti-fracking results, the broader fight over energy production, and why it matters beyond Colorado’s borders. Edited excerpts of the interview with King follow.
What’s your reaction to the election’s outcome regarding the anti-fracking measures, where four cities—Fort Collins, Boulder, Lafayette, and Broomfield—voted on anti-fracking measures?
I think obviously we have some work to do. It continues to be an industry that is struggling to get integrated into some communities along the Front Range. We obviously have to understand that it’s an industrial activity and these are people’s homes and communities.
What’s your take on the potential efforts to get a statewide ban on fracking?
A statewide ban would be devastating for the state’s economy. If we were to lose the oil and gas jobs that we have, it would be just catastrophic for our economy.... The idea of a statewide ban on fracking—that is such a draconian response, because there are a lot of areas, the vast majority of areas, where oil and gas development is taking place across the state that people are pretty happy with it.
What do you think these various fights over fracking bans mean about the debate over oil and natural-gas development?
Where industry has had an opportunity to participate as corporate citizens, inevitably and without exception those communities have come to accept benefits of those activities along with the impacts, and determined that they’re comfortable with that trade-off. But what we’re experiencing now ... is that we have multiple communities all wrestling with this issue at the same time ... which makes it very, very difficult for us as regulators to engage the way we would like to with all of those communities at the same time.
Anti-fracking activists come armed with data that reportedly shows that sicknesses increase directly because of nearby oil and gas development.
The way Colorado is going to respond is with what is the best air-quality rule in the country, and we’ll have that in place by February. The air we breathe and the water we drink is fundamental to our quality of our lives and our health. And we take that very seriously. I think we have the best groundwater rule in the country, and we’re going to have the best air-quality rule.
How do you think the debate over fracking has evolved in your state?
I do think this is one area where we’ve turned a corner and [are] having a more rational discussion about the real impacts of oil and gas. We’ve moved away in Colorado from the flaming faucet and understand that when you sink a water well into a coal-bed seam you’re probably going to have some methane in your water and the fact that it lights on fire it may or may not—in fact 99 percent of the circumstances has nothing to do with oil and gas development. But the impacts that are real—the truck traffic, the noise, the smells—those are real impacts that a community has to deal with, and we have to be able to have our own set of standards. We’ve moved the discussion from the boogeyman from [anti-fracking film] Gasland to a more rational discussion about real impacts of oil and gas.
I understand you have three children. Would you want your children playing in a playground next door to an oil and gas operation?
So how can you allow that to happen to other people’s families?
It is not my choice. And I can’t tell someone that I don’t want them to exercise their property right just because I don’t want them there. And the fact that I don’t want them there means I would not preclude them from doing it.
We have a cabin up in the mountains. We went up there one nice Friday afternoon and I looked out into the basin [in] front of us and we have a drilling rig in front of us. It was one of those moments: “So this is how it feels.” I didn’t buy the cabin to look at a producing oil and gas facility, but on the other hand, I didn’t own the minerals, and they have the right to do that.
How does climate change factor into this debate?
It’s a double-edged sword. Because natural gas is clearly a far-cleaner product than coal when it comes to creating energy, but with some in the environmental community, the idea of using a fossil fuel to address climate change is something that is just unacceptable. It’s this reality-based environmentalism. Yeah, we have to move toward renewables, but we’re not there, and we’re not going to get there for a period of 10, 15, 30 years before those renewables can be a part of the baseload.
How do you respond to the accusations from environmentalists that your administration is in the pocket of industry?
With the three rule-makings that we’ve done, with the air-quality rule-making we have coming up in February, I think that severely undercuts that allegation. I don’t think industry feels like we have been easy on them at all.
This article appears in the November 20, 2013 edition of NJ Daily as Beyond the ‘Flaming Faucet’.