An omnibus bill shifting the management of Colorado’s oil and gas industries and redefining regulators’ guiding principles will be introduced in the coming days, Gov. Jared Polis and the state’s ranking Democrats said Thursday.
Few have seen the imminent legislation, though Polis and House and Senate majority leaders, Rep. KC Becker, D-Boulder, and Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, offered a few details Thursday afternoon in the Capitol’s west foyer.
“The time to act is now. Putting health and safety first of communities, of workers, is absolutely critical,” Polis said. “And in a state as diverse as ours, as diverse culturally and politically and geographically, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to how we view integrating oil and gas development into different communities.”
So, the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission should prioritize public health and safety over business development, Polis said.
Local governments, rather than the state, should have control over proposed oil and gas, Fenberg said.
Those communities must be empowered “to take control over what’s happening in their backyards and equip them with the tools they need to stand up for their best interests,” he said.
The legislation is decades overdue, Becker said. And it will contain “common sense” proposals which would prioritize health, safety and environment over oil and gas.
“As technologies and drilling practices within the industry have changed over the years and as our communities have grown, our laws and state agencies that regulate oil and gas have not kept pace,” Becker said. “Leaving our neighborhoods, schools, communities and our environment with insufficient tools to deal with the risks and impacts of oil and gas.”
All of those discussion points will be addressed in the pending legislation, the Democrats said.
Fenberg previously told Colorado Politics the legislation is likely to be introduced in the House.
Reactions to the announcement were guarded, since outside organizations have yet to see the proposal.
Fenberg said many different stakeholders were consulted as the legislation was written, though the input they provided was not absolute.
“The industry didn’t write the bill,” he said. “Activists didn’t write the bill.”
One outgoing industry leader reiterated the optimism she previously expressed to Colorado Politics, prior to hearing what was proposed, but later expressed concern that industry leaders were not properly consulted in the drafting process.
“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 of the Colorado Petroleum Council, said in a statement. “We are deeply disappointed that House and Senate leadership do not appear to value the stakeholder process nor the importance of having all stakeholders at the table on one of the most consequential proposals in Colorado history.”
Bentley will depart next month to lead an industry group in Texas.
“This should make any industry, organization, or citizen group in Colorado nervous about a transparent, public legislative process from here forward and all Coloradans should consider the negative consequences of not having a stakeholder process in the creation of new legislation,” Bentley continued.
Bentley noted that the industry supports nearly 233,000 jobs and contributes more than $31 billion in annual economic activity to the state.
Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, responded similarly and said he took offense to what amounts to a mischaracterization of the industry.
“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,” Haley said in a statement.”
Although a clear disagreement stands, Haley said the industry is committed to the legislative process and seek clean air, water and safe communities.
Strong proponents of oil and gas reform said they are eager to review a concrete proposal.
"We find it curious to make a public statement about a bill that is not even public yet and has only been reviewed by a select group,” said Anne Lee Foster, a spokeswoman for Colorado Rising. “It's premature for us to respond because we haven't had a chance to review the bill in full. Having a press conference and asking for support on language, still unknown, is bizarre at best."
Colorado Rising is the group behind Proposition 112, which voters shot down in November. The measure would have increased the buffer zone between buildings and new oil and gas operations to 2,500 feet from the current 500 feet around homes and 1,000 feet around schools.
That very proposition was mentioned in a statement Thursday from Colorado Business Roundtable and signed by representatives of 30 Colorado business, labor and civic organizations.
Among those organizations were chambers of commerce from Aurora, Pueblo, Grand Junction, Fort Collins and Castle Rock among others, the Colorado Farm Bureau, the Colorado Bankers Association and the Colorado Association of Realtors.
“The people of Colorado voted against the extreme measure and efforts to push that type of agenda through the legislature, similarly, should be rejected in a strong, bipartisan manner,” the statement said of Proposition 112.
Becker said nothing in the bill will specifically address setbacks, though Fenberg said local governments would have the ability to impose them by themselves.
The Business Roundtable statement also asked Polis to collaborate with leaders in the oil and gas industry on the pending legislation and to lean on scientific analysis to drive new regulations.
“The oil and natural gas produced in Colorado has helped our nation lead the world in reducing carbon emissions, delivered cleaner air and helped renewable electricity sources dramatically expand by making the power grid more flexible and responsive to weather dependent sources like wind turbines and solar panels,” it said.
But there’s little natural about natural gas, said Emily Gedeon, conservation program director with the Sierra Club. Rather, methane gas emitted by the industry significantly contributes to ozone problems along the Front Range.
The Business Roundtable’s statement is instead “bobbing and weaving” and obfuscating the industry’s real impacts on Colorado’s environment, Gedeon said.
Becker offered a similar sentiment.
“Our state, including where my constituents live, work and play, has some of the worst air quality in the country,” Becker said. “That’s why the bill we’re proposing directs our state’s air quality experts to take the next steps to reduce harmful emissions from oil and gas development, including climate change inducing methane gas.”
But increased regulation has the potential to harm the state’s economy, the Business Roundtable’s statement said, repeating an argument an often heard argument against Proposition 112.
“As one of the state’s largest economic sectors, the oil and natural gas industry is one of the most significant sources of tax revenue for basic public services at the state and local level,” the statement reads. “More than $1 billion in taxes and other public revenues are generated by oil and natural gas development every year in Colorado, including more than $600 million for K-12 and higher education.”
Kelly Nordini, executive director of Conservation Colorado, however, said those economic arguments precede Proposition 112 and offer a false dichotomy. They’ve floated around the state since 2007 when former-Gov. Bill Ritter proposed updated oil and gas regulation.
But the picture of hundreds of thousands of lost jobs and millions in lost tax revenue only amount to “fear mongering” and “hyperbole,” Nordini said.
“Give me a break,” she said.
Nordini said she’s sure the bill won’t address each of her, or others’, concerns, but she was pleased with what Polis, Fenberg and Becker had to say and is eagerly awaiting the bill.
The state politicians were joined by Adams County Commissioner Eva Henry, who spoke in favor of the proposal, and Erin Martinez, whose husband and brother were killed when her home exploded in 2017.
The explosion was caused by natural gas leaking from a nearby pipeline, Martinez said. She and her children survived, however, and moved to a new home, only to discover yet another abandoned gas well just next door.
Martinez said the coming legislation is much needed.
“Human life should come first,” she said. “We should have the right to know what we are living and working on top of.”
Martinez said since the new well was discovered she is, yet again, in the process of moving.