State Regulator Is at the Center of the Fracking Boom

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Mike King
National Journal
Amy Harder
Nov. 19, 2013, 4:08 p.m.

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?

No.

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.

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