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An oil derrick is seen at a fracking site for extracting oil outside of Williston, N.D., March 11, 2013. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton) An oil derrick is seen at a fracking site for extracting oil outside of Williston, N.D., March 11, 2013. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)  

Colorado debates studying fracking with political appointees

Colorado lawmakers held debates over a bill that would create a politically appointed panel to investigate the health and quality of life impacts of hydraulic fracturing on local communities.

A key component of the bill is that no one with ties from the oil and gas industry will be allowed to serve on the panel as a voting member.

“The voting members of the committee shall not have any direct involvement or pecuniary interest in, or affiliation with, the oil and gas industry,” the bill reads.

The bill doesn’t specify the same for those with ties to the environmental community, although one of the four nonvoting members is also to represent environmental concerns.

Debate about the need for the study lasted several hours Thursday, with many people testifying on both side of the issue.

Democratic state Rep. Joann Ginal, the bill’s sponsor, said it was needed because constituents’ concerns about the potential health and environmental impacts aren’t being heard. She also said there was a lack of data on the potential health impacts of fracking.

But others on the House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee argued that fracking has been studied extensively in other parts of the country and questioned the need for another. The study is estimated to cost $566,000 over three years.

Others questioned the study’s vague goal of measuring how oil and gas operations impact residents’ “quality of life.”

At times, the hearing provided a glimpse at how Democrats are divided on the issue of fracking. Republican Rep. Frank McNulty said, “A well-regulated oil and gas industry does not pose a public health threat,” which echoes the argument of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has long held that fracking is safe and appropriately regulated through the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.”

Several Colorado communities put a halt to fracking during the November election over concerns about its potential impact on health, leading the state file at least one lawsuit, against the city of Fort Collins.

Fort Collins City Councilman Ross Cunniff testified in favor of the study, saying communities like his were “operating in a vacuum” when it comes to being able to negotiate with oil and gas companies.

But others were concerned about the political nature of the process — nearly all of the panel members will be appointed by politicians.

Dr. Michael Van Dyke, an epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said he would prefer a process that was more scientific than political in nature.

If approved, the panel will consist of nine voting members, six of whom will be appointed by Democrats, who control both chambers of the legislature (at least one of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s four appointments must be a Republican). The minority leaders in the state house and senate will each appoint one member. The final voting member will be the state’s chief medical officer.

Nonvoting members include one representative each from the environmental community and the oil and gas industry, a statistician and an economist. At least two appointees (in addition to the chief medical officer) must be physicians.

The committee will offer amendments and vote on the bill next week.

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