Tensions flare over renewed effort to regulate oil and gas

Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, who sponsored the bill to regulate the oil and gas industry, spoke at a press conference in the Capitol on Feb. 2, 2018. Photo by John Herrick

House lawmakers are moving forward with a plan that would require state regulators to consider the impacts of oil and gas drilling on public health and the environment first and foremost when reviewing permit applications.

As expected, the proposal is drawing pushback from the oil and gas industry, which fears it could delay permit applications, or worse, halt drilling. But the House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee passed the bill after a hearing that lasted past 10:00 p.m. on Thursday, voting 7-6 along party lines.

The bill aims to regulate oil and gas companies according to a legal interpretation of state law that prioritizes considerations of public health and environment when state regulators review drilling permits.

This interpretation is currently being appealed before the Colorado Supreme Court in the Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Lawmakers eager to regulate the oil and gas industry see this as an opportunity to clarify the law.

The bill faces an uphill battle. Republicans and the industry are opposed. And it will face challenges in the Republican-majority Senate, where several other bills seeking to regulate oil and gas drilling this year have died in their first committee hearing.

But whether lawmakers will address the issue of a swelling Front Range population that is increasingly coming into contact with oil and gas infrastructure remains to be seen if. Last year, residents of Sterling and football spectators in Greeley were forced to evacuate areas due to natural gas leaks. A well fire in Brighton, and another in the same place about three weeks later, also forced evacuations. And an explosion in Firestone last April killed two men and severely injured a woman.

“Those families have a right to be represented here above and beyond any industry,” said Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, who sponsored the bill.

Representatives from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the Colorado Petroleum Council urged the committee to let the current Martinez appeal play out before changing the underlying law. Another oil and gas association warned that companies may seek compensation if the bill has the effect of halting drilling and development, citing their constitutional property rights.

“It is my understanding that if you regulate to the point where you’re unable to develop, that that can be construed as a private property taking,” said Brett Moore, of the Colorado Alliance of Mineral and Royalty Owners.

The companies also said the state could lose severance tax dollars that help fund state agencies and local property taxes that fund schools due to less drilling.

Xiuhtezcatl (Shoo-tez-cat) Martinez showed support for a bill to regulate the oil and gas industry during a press conference in the Capitol on Thursday.

The debate comes on the heels of the new developments in the Martinez case, in which a group of teenagers, backed by advocacy groups, demand that the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency, the COGCC, not approve drilling permits unless it can prove that there will be no threat to health, safety or the environment. The state Court of Appeals in March sided with the teenagers. But on Monday, the Colorado Supreme Court decided to hear an appeal by State Attorney General Cynthia Coffman.

“We are confident they will affirm the decision from the Court of Appeals,” Xiuhtezcatl (Shoo-tez-cat) Martinez, the namesake plaintiff in the case, told a crowd gathered in the West Foyer Thursday afternoon. “In the meantime, the COGCC is massively failing to protect us.”

The public’s reaction to oil and gas development in the Front Range is placing a strain on regulatory hearings and has caused pushback from communities seeking more control over the permitting process. The city of Thornton has seen 15 spills in the last two years, according to Josh Zygielbaum, a Thornton city councilor who supports Salazar’s bill.

“There was one where a tanker truck actually slid off Riverdale Road, right by of Highway 7, into a water ditch, which carries drinking water for the city of Brighton,” Zygielbaum told reporters before the hearing. [Zygielbaum corrected this statement on Feb. 5 to say this water is not for drinking and is instead used to irrigate agriculture.]

Salazar counted his bill’s votes prior to the committee hearing and was confident it would pass. But the odds are grim for the bill in the Senate.

Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, introduced a bill giving local governments more control over where oil and gas wells are located, drawing passionate and supportive testimony from dozens of residents and local officials. But the bill, dubbed the Protect Act, died in a kill committee on Monday. Two other bills sponsored by Jones, one setting the state on track to be powered entirely on renewables and another seeking financial assurances from oil and gas companies, died in another committee on Thursday.

Salazar’s bill passed the House committee along partisan lines. Republicans raised general concerns about an effort to attack oil and gas companies that power residents automobiles, heat their homes and provide other necessities like gas for cooking. One Republican committee member raised concerns about the need to maintain a separation of powers and let the Colorado Supreme Court clarify the law. And another said there could be costly litigation over the issue of property rights.

But Salazar said he is confident the bill will make it through the Senate if lawmakers listen to their constituents’ concerns about the COGCC.

“If the Senate wants to remain bought and sold by the oil and gas industry, then I am not confident it will get out of the Senate,” Salazar said.   

A spokesperson for the COGCC did not respond to a request for comment by the time this story was published on Friday.

Title photo: Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, who sponsored the bill to regulate the oil and gas industry, spoke at a press conference in the Capitol on Thursday. Photos by John Herrick. 


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