Colorado Dem leaders pledge sweeping change in oil-gas rules
DENVER (AP) — Colorado’s Democratic-controlled state government promised dramatic and sweeping changes Thursday in the way the state regulates oil and gas drilling, saying public health and safety would become the top priorities.
Gov. Jared Polis and leaders of the state House and Senate also said local governments would be given broad powers over where new oil and gas wells can be drilled.
The two steps combined would upend the status quo. Under existing state law and court decisions, the first priority of regulators is fostering the oil and gas industry, not protecting health and safety, and only the state can regulate the industry, not local governments.
“State regulators absolutely must put health and safety ahead of industry profits,” Senate Majority Leader Stephen Fenberg said.
The text of the proposed bill was not immediately made public. House Speaker KC Becker said it could be introduced as soon as Friday.
Oil and gas drilling has long been contentious in Colorado, which ranks fifth in the nation for crude oil production and sixth for natural gas. The industry says it contributes $31.4 billion a year to the state economy.
The Wattenberg oil and gas field, the most productive field in the state and one of the top 10 nationally, overlaps fast-growing communities north of Denver, triggering frequent disputes over the proximity of wells to neighborhoods.
In 2017, two people were killed in a home explosion and fire blamed on a severed pipeline from a nearby gas well. One of the survivors of the blast endorsed the planned legislation at the formal announcement at the state Capitol Thursday.
Erin Martinez, whose husband Mark Martinez and brother Joseph Irwin were killed in the explosion, described her and her son’s harrowing escape from their demolished home.
“Nobody should ever have to experience what my family has had to go through,” she said. “I feel a direct responsibility to keep that from happening.”
Martinez said the industry should be willing to make changes to prevent a similar tragedy. “Mark and Joey deserve better. We all deserve better,” she said.
Colorado Petroleum Council Executive Director Tracee Bentley said the proposals outlined Thursday are complicated, and lawmakers did not do enough to get the industry’s ideas before writing the bill.
Industry representatives met with lawmakers and were aware of the bill’s broad concepts but not the detailed language, she said.
“This should make any industry, organization, or citizen group in Colorado nervous about a transparent, public legislative process from here forward,” Bentley said.
Polis and the lawmakers said the legislation would be reasonable and was not an attack on the industry. They said current rules are antiquated and have not kept pace with changes in drilling technology, a reference to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and directional drilling.
Fracking uses a pressurized mix of water, sand and chemicals to break open underground formations and release oil and gas. Directional drilling allows wells to penetrate multiple pockets of oil and gas from a single location.
“It’s been over 60 years since meaningful changes have been made to our oil and gas laws,” Fenberg said. “The technology used in the industry today is vastly different today than in the 1950s when these laws were written.”
Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, disputed that the rules have not changed and accused lawmakers of resorting to “revisionist history.”
“We have the strictest regulations in the country and they have been updated dozens and dozens of times with bipartisan support and the involvement of countless stakeholders,” he said.
State government has rewritten and tightened industry rules several times in recent years, though most of the changes fell short of what advocates and local officials wanted.
In December, regulators expanded the zone around schools where drilling is banned. Polis’ predecessor, Democrat John Hickenlooper, ordered regulators to document the location of pipelines like the one that led to the Firestone explosion. Colorado has imposed methane pollution rules on the industry that are among the toughest in the nation.
Colorado Rising, which has sought tighter regulation on the industry, declined comment on Thursday’s announcement. Executive Director Joe Salazar said he was waiting to see the language of the bill.
Voters in November defeated a ballot issue sponsored by Colorado Rising that would have expanded the statewide minimum distance or setback between new wells and occupied buildings. Lawmakers said Thursday the new bill does not address setbacks but would allow local governments to establish them.
Lawmakers said Colorado Rising was among the groups they met with in formulating the bill but said the group’s role was limited.
“We wrote the bill,” Fenberg said. “Industry didn’t write the bill, activists didn’t write the bill.”
This story has been corrected to show the announcement was Thursday, not Wednesday.
Associated Press writer James Anderson contributed.
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