Adams County halts drilling permits due to ballot measure

The Colorado General Assembly has passed a wildly contentious bill to beef up local regulation of oil and gas operations -- and already the legislation faces the threat of a possible ballot measure to repeal its provisions.

It was one of two hot-button issues to drop on Gov. Jared Polis' desk in recent days, the other being "red flag" legislation on gun seizures.

Senate Bill 181 drew weeks of fiery debate, Capitol rallies, warnings of ruin for the state economy hurled against pleas to protect public health and safety, and even talk of the secession of rural parts of Colorado from the rest of the state.

Final action came Wednesday, when the Senate -- having already passed a version of the bill -- considered 14 House amendments to the measure, many of them aimed at placating critics.

The Senate voted 35-0 to accept the amendments, and then repassed the bill on a 19-16 vote, with all Democrats voting yes and all Republicans voting no.

"I think it's in the best interest of the state, the best interest of this body, the best interest communities that are impacted by oil and gas extraction ... for us to accept these amendments and call it a job well done," said Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, one of the sponsors of the bill.

Polis is expected to sign the bill into law.

Laurie Cipriano, a spokesperson for Polis, said he was thankful to the bill's sponsors and credited them for working with people affected by the bill.

"He especially thanks Erin Martinez for her bravery in sharing her story to make Colorado safer," Cipriano said, referring to the Firestone woman whose home exploded in 2017 because of a gas line, killing her husband and another man.

"This bill protects the health and safety of Colorado families and communities and it represents a meaningful step forward for the state. The governor is thrilled to see it pass."

The legislation will allow local governments to make decisions on oil and gas operations that have been reserved for the state, including where wells locate in relation to homes, schools and businesses.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state's main fossil-fuels regulator, would be instructed to put public health, safety and the environment ahead of fostering the industry.

Opponents have said the legislation will create uncertainty and drive companies out of the state, taking thousands of jobs and billions in taxes with it. The oil and gas industry says it contributes $32 billion annually to the state economy, including taxes and 89,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer and former Arapahoe County Commissioner John Brackney said Wednesday they will try to put a measure on the November ballot asking voters to annul the changes and create a nonpartisan state regulatory body.

"What we're trying to do is narrow it to one independent commission and prevent one party or another from politicizing it," said Kirkmeyer, an outspoken proponent of oil and gas development.

In response to the measure's passage, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s Dan Haley and the Colorado Petroleum Council’s Ben Marter released a joint statement:

“SB 181 is the most comprehensive oil and natural gas legislation Colorado has seen in decades. While a few critical amendments were added that begin to address some of industry’s concerns and provide a degree of certainty to our member companies, our industry remains firmly opposed to this bill because it threatens one of the pillars of Colorado’s economy."

The COGA-CPC statement added: “While we clearly disagree on this bill, we appreciate that legislative leaders heard us and opened a dialogue in the final two weeks about the unintended, and intended, consequences of the legislation as introduced. We hope that dialogue will continue for the remainder of the legislative session and beyond — that’s how Colorado should work. Our state’s energy future is too important to shut out voices from all impacted stakeholder communities.

“State officials have committed to working with industry experts during the highly complex regulatory rulemakings following the bill’s enactment," the statement added. "That will be critical to minimizing the bill’s negative impacts on our state, and we hope that process can begin immediately.”

A collection of environmental leaders and activist groups also commented Wednesday after the bill was passed.

"Coloradans can breathe easier today knowing that our state is finally on track to put the health and safety of workers and residents, and our environment ahead of oil and gas industry profits," said Kelly Nordini, the executive director of Conservation Colorado, the state's largest environmental organization.

Sara Loflin, the executive director of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans said in a statement: "SB181 is an important foundational step for impacted Coloradans. It is time that communities have a voice when it comes to massive industrial projects being forced into their neighborhoods and near their schools. Thank you to our legislators who stood up for Colorado’s impacted communities today.”

Anne Lee Foster, spokesperson for Colorado Rising, the main group behind last November's failed attempt to greatly expand buffer zones between homes and oil and gas operations, said that "despite some concerning amendments, SB-181 is still a step in the right direction. There were some very obvious loopholes and major concessions granted to industry. While SB-181 does not address all of the concerns and threats associated with industrial fracking activity, it is a desperately needed tipping back of enormously unbalanced scales in favor of people and environment over corporate profits."

She said that rulemaking "will be critical in protecting Coloradoans and making sure 181 fulfills the new mandate of prioritizing health and safety. Colorado Rising will be there to empower communities and fight for and our environment and public health."

The Associated Press contributed.


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