Oil and gas tampering bill moves on to state House

The state Senate this morning gave its final okay to a bill that would make tampering with oil and gas equipment a felony punishable by up to 18 months in jail and up to a $100,000 fine. But, in the words of the movie Silverado, House Democrats are expected to give the measure “a fair trial followed by a first-class hanging.”

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican, agreed Monday to remove some of the bill’s most strident language at the request of Senate Democrats. Oil and gas production is a major industry in northeastern Colorado, including in Logan County, where Sterling is located.

As introduced, the measure said anyone tampering with oil or gas gathering operations or who places another “in danger of death or seriously bodily injury” would be charged with a class 6 felony, the lowest-level felony in state law. The Senate removed the danger of death or bodily injury language during debate on Monday. 

Democrats have claimed the language is vague and could restrict peaceful protest at oil and gas drilling sites. Democratic Sen. Matt Jones of Louisville, both in a committee hearing two weeks ago and today, said that the bill protects the industry when it is the people who live near drilling sites who need protection. Democrats said oil and gas workers could end up charged with that crime, if, for example, a worker damaged equipment. They also questioned whether the felony charge would apply to someone who blocks the entrance to an oil or gas drilling site, as that could be considered tampering with oil and gas operations.

Related: Colorado Senate to consider harsher penalties for oil and gas tampering

Sonnenberg and fellow Republicans pointed out that tampering is already a misdemeanor, and that an increase in vandalism at oil and gas sites demands the crime be elevated to a felony. According to a fiscal analysis of the bill, however, there has been one conviction for tampering in the last three years, out of 10 trespass complaints on oil and gas drilling sites. The low number of incidents prompted Jones to indicate the bill is a solution in search of a problem. “This hardly ever happens,” he said during committee testimony earlier this month.

All 18 Republican senators voted in favor of the bill, as did Democratic Sen. Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge. Sixteen Senate Democrats voted against it.

Sonnenberg told The Colorado Independent he had hoped to gain a few more Democratic votes, given his willingness to compromise on the bill’s language.

Following its passage, Conservation Colorado spokeswoman Jessica Goad said the bill “is not sound public policy. It creates a new felony for actions that have not been shown to be a problem, and allows a unnecessary special carve-out for oil and gas.

“We support thoughtful discussions about how to balance energy development with concerns of local communities, but this bill would have a chilling effect on those conversations,” Goad added.

The measure now goes to the House, where it will be sponsored by Rep. Jon Becker, a Fort Morgan Republican. It is not expected to win the favor of House Democrats, who hold a nine-seat advantage over Republicans, and are still irritated by Attorney General Cynthia Coffman’s decision two weeks ago to sue Boulder over its extension of an oil and gas drilling moratorium despite a Colorado Supreme Court ruling last year that says the power to regulate the industry lies with the state. 


Photo credit: WildEarth Guardians, Creative Commons, flickr

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.