By law, state oil and gas regulators must “foster” the industry. Democrats aim to change that.

"With great tragedy should also come great change. Human life should come first,” said Erin Martinez

Erin Martinez, whose husband and brother were killed in the 2016 Firestone home explosion, spoke at the state Capitol on Feb. 28 to support new oil and gas regulations. (Photo by John Herrick)

Editor’s note: On March 13, the Senate passed the oil and gas bill 19-15 along party lines. Democrats backed several amendments considered favorable to the industry. They include allowing companies to request a technical review of a local government’s decision on an application and a requirement that local government regulations be “necessary and reasonable.” Some supporters worry these amendments strip away power from local governments and conflict with the intent of the bill. Earlier this month, hundreds of people who work in the oil and gas industry came to the state Capitol — some on private buses paid for by their employers — to protest a bill overhauling state regulations on drilling. The industry still opposes the bill. Republicans, who have raised concerns that the bill is moving too fast, effectively filibustered it for a day when they asked for a 2,000-word bill to be read in full. This story was originally published on March 5, 2019. 

On April 17, 2017, Erin Martinez’s home exploded. She remembers feeling the house lift from the ground. She remembers being trapped by debris.

Martinez escaped with injuries from the blast, which was caused by a leak in a nearby natural gas line. Her husband and brother, who were working on a hot water heater in the basement of the Firestone home, were killed.

Martinez, who has since recovered and moved into a new home, came to the state Capitol on Thursday to support legislation that would dramatically change how Colorado regulates oil and gas development across the state.  

“I have no desires to destroy the industry. Lots of good people depend on this industry for their livelihoods. I respect that,” Martinez, flanked by Democratic lawmakers, county commissioners, and Gov. Jared Polis, told a crowd of mostly staffers and reporters.

“However, with great tragedy should also come great change. Human life should come first,” she said.   

Her speech capped off an announcement that Democrats will soon introduce a bill overhauling the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s oversight of the $31-billion industry, among other reforms. 

Under the proposed legislation, which will be introduced as soon as Friday, lawmakers say the COGCC will no longer be allowed to promote the industry, a statutory mandate dating back to 1951 that drilling opponents say conflicts with the commission’s other regulatory obligations. When issuing drilling permits, the commission must make protecting public health, safety and the environment a top priority, lawmakers say. If enacted, it would mark a subtle but significant shift in the agency’s decision-making that for years has been contested in the state courts.

Another key provision would allow local communities to regulate drilling themselves, which could effectively prohibit drilling in certain communities. Oil and gas companies have long feared such a patchwork of regulations across the state, especially as Boulder, Erie, Lafayette, Superior and other Front Range cities pursue moratoriums on drilling.

Supporters of the legislation say it’s about updating antiquated regulations that have not kept pace with growth in the industry.

“We need to modernize our laws to reflect the circumstances of today,” said House Speaker KC Becker of Boulder, who helped craft the legislation. She added: “Our state, including where my constituents live, work and play, has some of the worst air quality in the country. … It’s past time for action.”

House Speaker KC Becker spoke at the state Capitol on Feb. 28 to support new oil and gas regulations. (Photo by John Herrick)

In 2018, the industry produced a record 15.8 million barrels of oil and 1,800 billion cubic feet of natural gas. It also fended off anti-fracking challenges on the November ballot and in the state courts, preserving the status quo amid growing pushback to drilling along the populated Front Range. In recent years, the region has seen new oil and gas drilling creep closer to Denver suburbs and housing developments inch outward into the oil and gas patch, prompting concerns about public safety.

In the last five years, Democratic lawmakers’ repeated attempts to regulate the industry have been shot down in the GOP-controlled Senate. Republicans view the industry as a key economic driver. But now, with Democrats in control of the state legislature and the governor’s office for the first time since 2014, the industry may be unable to stop historic changes to its operations.

There were no Republicans at the press conference. A spokesman for the Senate Republicans said they will comment after the bill is introduced.

Hundreds of oil and gas workers came to the state Capitol on March 5, 2019 to protest a bill aimed at regulating drilling. (Photo by John Herrick)

The oil and gas industry raised concerns about process in an early reaction to the proposed legislation. 

“In my over 15 years of working with the Colorado state government, not having a thorough stakeholder process is unprecedented, especially for a bill that targets one industry but impacts every Coloradan,” Tracee Bentley, executive director for the Colorado Petroleum Council, an industry trade group, said in a statement. 

The industry also pushed back on statements by lawmakers that regulations are lagging behind.

“Their notion that oil and natural gas regulations haven’t been modernized and strengthened in 60 years is revisionist history,” said Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, in a statement. “We have the strictest regulations in the country.”

Bella Romero Academy in Greeley, CO. (Photo by Lisa Gross, courtesy Colorado Rising)

State regulators have virtually never denied a drilling permit application, in part because the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has the legislative mandate to promote the industry. However, hundreds of drilling permits have been withdrawn or rejected, in part due to concerns or questions raised by state regulators.

The bill does not include any provisions to increase setbacks — the distance between drilling rigs and homes and structures — though some local communities could implement their own setbacks under the proposed changes in law, lawmakers said. A ballot measure this November that would have quintupled setbacks from the current 500 feet to 2,500 feet was rejected by voters.

Research shows living within 500 feet of oil and gas facilities increases the risk of cancer due to exposure to pollutants such as benzene and alkanes. Other research concludes that living 500 feet or further away from a well site reduces the exposure risk to levels considered safe by federal and state health standards. Still, there have been 867 drilling permits granted since 2009 that fall within 500 feet of a building, according to the state.

After the November election, proponents of the increased setbacks, including Colorado Rising, said they are already working to get a similar setback measure on the ballot in 2020. 

Hundreds of oil and gas workers came to the state Capitol on March 5, 2019 to protest a bill aimed at regulating drilling. (Photo by John Herrick)

Another lawsuit before the U.S. District Court of Colorado is challenging a state law that allows oil and gas companies to drill underneath someone’s property without their consent as long as a company makes a “reasonable” offer of compensation.

Democratic lawmakers have long sought to regulate so-called forced pooling. Sen. Mike Foote, a Democrat from Lafayette, is among them. As part of the legislative package announced Thursday, he said the bill will require at least 51 percent of mineral rights owners in a neighborhood to consent before a pooling permit application can be filed. Currently, just one person is needed. It would also increase the royalties to mineral rights owners if they decide to sign a lease agreement.

Gov. Jared Polis spoke at the state Capitol on Feb. 28 to support new oil and gas regulations. (Photo by John Herrick)

The expected legislation comes after Gov. Jared Polis requested $1.8 million from lawmakers to beef up staff at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to inspect more wells and to chip away at a permitting backlog of over 6,000 applications. There are about 53,300 active wells in Colorado, according to the COGCC, with only 30 full-time employees dedicated to inspecting them for environmental and public health violations. In recent years, the number of public complaints about odor, noise and water contamination has been on the rise, with a spike in 2017, according to state data. Meanwhile, the number of inspections has declined, in part due to the length of time it takes to respond to public complaints.

Another provision in the expected legislation will make the location of underground natural gas flow lines more easily accessible for public inspection, lawmakers said. Such information, supporters say, may have prevented the fatal Firestone home explosion.

Martinez said before she moved into her new home, she was told there were no oil and gas wells nearby. She moved in and told her son they were safe. Months later, she said, oil and gas crews arrived. They began digging, moving closer and closer to her home. Then they found an abandoned well along a fenceline she shares with her neighbor.

She told a crowd at the state Capitol people have a right to know what they are living on top of. 

“We are in the process of moving again,” Martinez said. “And I am trying to get my son to trust that this time it will be OK.”

7 COMMENTS

  1. Reading this, I question why the developer who built houses during all of this expansion of population , did not have each and every plot where house was to be built, was not tested with gas line detecting equipment to locate that capped off, old well. When work has done on my residence, someone from the city water and gas service, paints the line across the yard, and even out into the street for sewer work, before project is done. Even replacing sewer lines under the street, has gas lines, and water supply lines to house, which are buried, painted.
    ——Instead of hanging this expense and damages or complaints of those drilling new wells, is it not more logical that developer who builds houses in range country, should be responsible. The fire and explosion in Firestone, was in basement of house, built long after the earlier gas company had removed their equipment and capped the well. Anyone moving to Colorado has to know the houses they are buying , were not there 20 or more years ago. And those coming now, do not own the mineral rights under the ground, which is very, very, very deep compared to what depth they own with just surface rights.
    ——-And the agent who sells property should ensure the site was checked for pre-existing wells, or gas lines, or any other faults. Know when I sold property in Ohio, and bought in Colorado, I was told of any problems. I asked and grew up with a standing gas pipe on our farm, which ended with flame 10 feet in air, burning day and night. Was from gas and oil well on farm over a mile away, but running through our farm, parents received service, which was good yard lighting and killed mosquitos, and they receive annual check for $60 ($5. per month).

  2. I’d like the OG industry to step up and give back. Use your money to develop, fund and provide internships in Clean Energy to help workers transition. We don’t want to cut OGF off, we want them to provide monetary and physical RESOURCES the local citizens. Local. Local. Local

  3. I hope you’ll agree that the downside of losing $5/month is well worth the upside of gaining fresher air. We need OG to step up and foster the transition o Cleaner Energy. I’m not for cutting the OG people off at the knees, but GO needs to provide monetary and physical resources to be utilized in a massive education program. Weld County GO has the buildings, equipment and outreach to lift up Weld County as a desirable place to move. If people continue to be awed by what Douglas County has to offer, why not provide resources to elevate educational levels in Weld to match DougCo. Think of your property values! We don’t have any more f*&%ging room or water. Go North everybody! Not by using taxes, but asking OG to repay what they have taken. literally and figuratively. Bless you Fierce Erin Martinez.

  4. Unfortunately I invested in the Colorado oil and gas business thinking that I was doing a good thing for my family and for my country. I was not aware that politics could potentially wipe out the industry that I invested in.
    I don’t disagree that there seems to be some flaws in the Colorado inspection process during home development planning. That explosion should have never happened. It should have been caught during the planning stage. If you build homes over a dump site, I guess you must eliminate trash is that where we are at? Seems a little like an industry is being blamed and bullied by politics.
    No one is talking about the position shale oil has placed our country globally. Our President is able to use our self sufficiency for oil to hold world powers at a distance that would seek to destroy American life. Just seems like very narrow minded and reckless thinking on the part of Democrats. I for one am pulling my money out of Colorado and investing somewhere else. I made a big mistake by investing in Colorado in 2018. I learned a tough lesson about political agendas. You would think that a reasonable approach could have been developed instead of the one that has led to a mass stock market sell off in Colorado oil and gas companies. These just seem to be more political moves made by a party that seeks to hurt the industry and our country for political reasons. Just the oppionion of a guy that evidently made a very bad decision to invest in Colorado. Sadly it won’t happen again. Good luck Colorado!

  5. SB19-015 – Create Statewide Health Care Review Committee Concerning the creation of the statewide health care review committee to study health care issues that affect Colorado residents throughout the state.

    SB19-181 is the bill dealing with local control of oil and gas.

  6. What kind of economic model is Colorado operating on when we rely on a boom-or-bust industry to fund our education system? Where our state government is responsible for a private industry’s success or failure, but if the industry is shut down for lack of economic viability in the face of overproduction by Saudi Arabia… who would they blame for the job losses then? How would Colorado pay for our education? Lawmakers have been kicking this can down the road for far too long. I bet every other Colorado citizen who works in a non-oil and gas job would love to have absolute certainty that they’re always going to have a job. Nothing is certain but death and taxes. And when are the visionaries of our state going to all get on the same page about climate change? Look what a federal judge just did to 500 square miles of public land in Wyoming? It is now closed to drilling until a full environmental review can be done about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. We are talking out of both sides of our mouths here. The time is now to decide what kind of a Colorado we want to live in. Thank you to Colorado’s Democrats for having the courage to lead and stand for something.

  7. This is soo very sad!!! The oil and gas industry has made fracking extremely safe, they have become such a safe industry, and provides many jobs. Winds mills are killing millions of our birds every year including bald eagles!!! I’m not ok with that! Please do your research!!! The facts are not always what you are told!

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.