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Colorado Democrats avoid fracking fight after deal prompts groups to drop dueling proposals

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DENVER - Colorado Democrats avoided a politically costly fight over oil and gas drilling after a quid pro quo deal pitched by the state's fracking-friendly governor prompted groups to drop their dueling ballot proposals.

The cease-fire compromise from Gov. John Hickenlooper was announced with great fanfare at the state capitol Monday morning with U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a fellow Democrat who helped finance two initiatives that sought to limit hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. He agreed to back off his proposals, and groups pitching two pro-fracking proposals said later in the day they would end their campaigns as well.

A ballot-battle over drilling had Democrats worried about the implications. Taking the issue to voters could have negatively impacted Democrats in November by increasing fundraising for Republicans who favour oil and gas development and possibly boosting GOP turnout.

Hickenlooper is running for re-election, and incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall is in a closely watched contest against Republican U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner. The race could help determine control of the Senate.

As a compromise to avoid the ballot fight, Hickenlooper said an 18-member task force would issue recommendations to the Colorado Legislature next year on how to minimize conflicts between residents and the energy industry.

Polis said the governor's announcement was "truly a victory for the people of Colorado and the movement to enact sensible protections and safeguards around fracking."

Fracking is a technique that blasts a mix of water, sand or gravel, and chemicals into underground rock formations to release trapped oil and gas.

Backers of the two measures sympathetic to the industry also declared victory.

"This is an exciting turn of events," said Rep. Frank McNulty, who worked on a ballot question that would have prevented municipalities banning fracking from collecting state revenue that comes from drilling. "For months we've asked Polis to pull his initiatives in favour of a more constructive approach."

Another pro-fracking initiative would have called for financial impact statements to be included in future ballot questions seeking greater oversight on energy development.

Signatures for the four ballot questions were turned in before Monday's deadline, but the groups had until Sept. 5 to pull them.

The Polis-endorsed measures would have increased the distance between homes and rigs from 500 feet to 2,000 feet, and another would have given local governments more control over drilling.

Hickenlooper said the suggested restrictions, if passed, posed "a significant threat to Colorado's economy." Opponents of the anti-fracking initiatives also raised concerns about unleashing legal claims over property rights if the state blocked energy companies from accessing mineral rights they own.

"I think we can all agree that responsible oil and gas development in Colorado is critical to our economy, our environment, our health, and our future," Hickenlooper said.

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Find Ivan Moreno on Twitter: http://twitter.com/IvanJourno

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