Initiative 97: Republicans take official position against oil & gas setbacks

An oil pump near a new home In Frederick in Weld County.

For five hours Thursday night, the Colorado House debated legislation that has sharply divided Republicans from Democrats: oil and gas regulation.

After scores of amendments, they passed the bill on a voice vote just before 11 p.m. The contentious discussion will resume, however, on Friday morning.

With Democrats holding majorities in the House and Senate, and Gov. Jared Polis in support, there's not much Republicans can do to head off Senate Bill 181.

The legislation would cede more power to local communities to set rules on where drilling operations are located in relation to homes, schools and businesses.

The bill also increases emissions monitoring and require the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to make public health and the environment a priority over enabling the industry  to "regulate" rather than "foster" operations, Democrats said.

"I think these improvements are a critical first step in addressing some imbalance in the way we treat oil and gas in this state," said House Speaker KC Becker, a Democrat from Boulder who is a prime sponsor of the bill. 

Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, added, "Local control is at the heart of this bill." 

Republicans tried, in vain, to add a clause to the bill that would allow a petition for a statewide vote to overturn Senate Bill 181, if it becomes law.

"The voters  the citizens of Colorado  in this great state have the right to petition their government," said Rep Lori Saine, R-Dacono. "... SB 181 is not the Colorado way, and we've heard that from thousands of people."

Rep. Shane Sandridge, R-Colorado Springs, added, speaking to House members, "Aren't we supposed to represent our state, the people of our state? And what are we afraid of by allowing them to vote on this?"

Becker said the lack of a petition clause doesn't stop anyone from collecting signatures to put a question on the ballot anytime. A successful petition drive tied directly to Senate Bill 181, however, would keep the proposed law from taking effect until after the November 2020 election.

"The people of Colorado don't want to wait that long," the House speaker said.

The oil and gas industry would likely spend heavily to overturn the law, just as they did in defeating Proposition 112 last year. 

Last fall, voters statewide rejected Proposition 112, which would have required a 2,500-foot buffer for oil and gas operations, by a 13-point margin. The current buffer is 500 feet.

The bill still has to pass a recorded roll call there in the next few days.

The House tacked on a number of amendments, which means a bicameral negotiating committee will have to work out a single compromise bill for both chambers to vote on before the session ends on May 3.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, the conservative activist group Colorado Rising Action said the bill could cost the state 120,000 direct and indirect jobs tied to oil and gas, costing the state $8 billion in tax revenue.

“The Democrats don’t seem to care that SB-181 has never had bipartisan support as they ram the new energy regulations through the Legislature," executive director Michael Fields said. "When the state loses billions of dollars of tax revenue it won’t be partisan anymore; every Coloradan will feel the impact.”

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