Colorado drilling oil gas

A drill rig off Interstate 25 near Erie in Weld County, with Longs Peak in the background.

Quietly in the background as this election and pandemic season unfolds, Colorado history is being written in advance. Either the war over oil and gas is ending or it’s just getting started. People should be paying attention.

Gov. Jared Polis is. This has been his fight since at least 2014, when he challenged the more industry-friendly outlook of then-Gov. John Hickenlooper by threatening to support setback regulations on the ballot that year. Hickenlooper compromised. He had a tough re-election that year.

Polis penned an op-ed in Colorado Politics last month saying he wouldn’t support any oil or gas ballot questions until Senate Bill 181, passed last year, has a chance to play out.

The landmark legislation was just one of a handful of bills engineered and guided by brilliant House Speaker KC Becker of Boulder, including Colorado's first official Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2025 and 50% by 2030. 

The industry said it's already doing all it can to protect the air and water where they and tens of thousands of their employees call home. All of Colorado's dirty air problems shouldn't be pinned on them, when they're driving progress and innovation.

Polis' Colorado Politics op-ed suggested to the industry that he is willing to work together, at least conditionally.

"The governor's op-ed signaled that the oil and natural gas industry is open for business in Colorado, offering legislative and regulatory certainty for its employees, investors, our environment and everyone who relies on affordable reliable natural gas to heat their homes this winter," Protect Colorado spokeswoman Laurie Cipriano said.

Senate Bill 181 created a new Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission made up of professionals to draft rules that include setbacks from homes, schools, businesses and such. Setbacks lost on the statewide ballot just two years ago, after advertising and operative dollars burned like a bonfire.

The commission is required to assess the impact of drilling. pumping and producing on public health, communities and wildlife with science that's far from conclusive. Environmental groups are spoiling for a fight, unless regulators regulate, presumably to their satisfaction.

“Gov. Polis signed a bill last year that prioritized public health over profits in oil and gas drilling, then developed a so-called ‘ballot truce’ to ensure that his oil and gas regulators could do their job,” said Leslie Robinson, a longtime advocate from Rifle and chair of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, who testified in favor of Senate Bill 181 last year. “Now is the time to put those words into action and protect families and communities by moving drilling operations more than 2,000 feet from homes. Without that critical buffer, families will continue to suffer devastating health impacts and we will once again see millions spent to protect Coloradans at the ballot box.”

Sara Loflin, executive director of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, said, "Now is the time for policymakers to get this right and to protect neighborhoods and prevent more communities from the impacts of neighborhood drilling. Establishing a 2,500-foot buffer between families and drilling operations is not arbitrary — it is a result of research and science that points to dangerous impacts when drilling activity is any closer.”

A truce isn’t meant to last. That’s why it's not called peace.

Oil and gas might be a temporarily wounded industry, but still a well-financed one, with a strong track record in Colorado elections. Protect Colorado was conceived to help the industry make its case with voters.

"Gov. Polis understands the importance of the industry and so do Coloradans. We know that well-intended policies can sacrifice energy reliability. This summer, California didn't have a backup plan for energy shortages," Cipriano said. "We don't want that to happen in Colorado, especially when the use of natural gas is a leading driver of CO2 emission reduction in Colorado and the U.S."

Last year the Colorado Department of Public Health did a first-of-its-kind study applying the best available science to threats from living and breathing within 2,000 feet of a drilling operation.

It sounds scary, though the warnings are laden with predictions, estimates and asterisks.

“The study does not determine any elevated risk of chronic health impacts from any single substance at 500 feet or greater,” the authors note in an addendum. “The study shows slightly elevated risk of blood and nervous system effects from multiple chemicals at 500 ft but not at 2000 ft. Cancer risk under all exposures was within the Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable risk range.”

Intellectual battles happen like this, in fits and starts and new directions. There will be more to the story. It’s the way of humans, not just politics.

Take Ivan Turgenev, the Russian writer and social critic, who spent his life in love with an opera singer who never loved him back.

“A system is like the tail of truth, but truth is like a lizard,” he said. “It leaves its tail in your fingers and runs away, knowing full well it will grow a new one in a twinkling.”

There has to be a weigh station between and health and safety on the way to jobs and tax revenue. The question is whether either side will be happy stopping over to consider peace and compromise.

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