Colorado Senate to consider harsher penalties for oil and gas tampering

As tensions between homeowners and Colorado’s oil and gas industry heat up, a state senator wants to enable the state to slap up to six-figure fines on anyone who tampers with oil and gas equipment

Breaking, removing, destroying or otherwise tampering with equipment at well pads, pipelines and other places where the industry operates is already a crime under Colorado state law. Republican state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, who represents northeastern Colorado, introduced a bill that would increase the charge for the crime from a Class 2 misdemeanor to a Class 6 felony.

Class 2 misdemeanors can carry penalties of up to a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. Class 6 felonies can carry prison sentences of up to 18 months and fines of up to $100,000. Sonnenberg’s bill would also expand the law to include “placing another in danger of death or serious bodily injury” as part of the crime.

He proposed the measure just a week after Lafayette City Council introduced its Climate Bill of Rights and Protections, a plan to codify residents’ right to a healthy climate and legalize acts of civil disobedience in defense of that right. Recent city council meetings there, as in other communities across the Front Range, have drawn standing-room-only crowds and heated input from homeowners desperate to take back control over oil and gas development in their communities.

Sonnenberg acknowledges that the equipment tampering bill addresses are not a real issue in Colorado. But he says there remains a need to protect public safety, adding that he is witnessing such acts of tampering nationwide, “in Facebook posts and the new movement of civil disobedience, and that people are actually … causing a huge, huge public safety issue.”

“Obviously if you change the pressure on these pipelines, you create the potential of a huge catastrophic event, that’s what I’m trying to prevent,” he told The Colorado Independent.

But in Lafayette, some environmentalists say the bill is meant to force them to accept the activities of an industry they do not want in their community.

“We see this as a clear attempt at political coercion and a clear threat to people that are legitimately protecting the right to their environment,” said Cliff Willmeng, a Lafayette resident and member of East Boulder County United, which has worked to advance the city’s Climate Bill of Rights.

“It’s also part of a national pattern of increased repression of these forms of political dissent,” he added, referring to recently proposed laws in seven other states that would stiffen penalties for protesters or allow for greater crackdown on their activities.

This morning, President Trump signed two executive orders allowing construction to advance on the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, a move that’s likely to trigger unrest among environmentalists who’ve bitterly fought both projects.

Sonnenberg’s bill is expected to pass the Republican-controlled state Senate, but die in the House, where the Democratic majority is likely to frame it as a solution in search of a problem.

Data from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state’s industry regulatory agency, shows four acts of vandalism on oil and gas equipment since 2013. Three incidents involved vandals shooting tanks or pipelines with bullets. One incident, in which vandals opened valves and released produced water and waste material, led to a fire in Garfield County. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, which has not yet taken a position on the bill, does not track vandalism statistics.

Sonnenberg says he supports the rights of free speech and assembly. “They can go out there, surround themselves, chain themselves to the fence, I don’t care. But do not screw with the public safety by changing the pressure on those pipes.”

Willmeng, who helps organize nonviolent direct action training sessions across the Front Range, would not comment on whether Colorado protesters are planning to mess with pipe valves. “Have I witnessed somebody turning a valve off? No.”

Sonnenberg’s bill has been assigned to the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources, & Energy Committee. A committee hearing date has not yet been set.


Photo credit: Loren Kerns, Creative Commons, Flickr