A Colorado Senate committee approved a bill Tuesday that would would tighten oil and gas regulations, prioritize health and safety over business development, and give local governments control of industry permits.
Controversy and nearly 12 hours of debate stemmed from Senate Bill 181, which Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, presented to the Committee on Transportation and Energy before hearing testimony from hundreds of witnesses.
The committee approved that legislation along party lines, in a 4-3 vote, sending the measure to the Senate’s Finance Committee on Thursday.
Fatal explosions, poisoned wells and shriveled property values hinge on Colorado’s oil and gas industry, many testified before a state Senate committee Tuesday.
But that industry drives the state’s economy, creates jobs and donates money and time to Colorado businesses and nonprofits, many others noted.
The oil and gas industry still could operate, “but not at the expense of people’s health and safety,” Fenberg said.
Erin Martinez said such regulations might have saved her husband and brother, who were killed in a 2017 explosion in Firestone sparked by natural gas leaking from a nearby pipeline.
“With proper regulations and inspections and pressure testing, this entire tragedy could have been avoided,” Martinez told the committee.
Under the bill, local governments could inspect oil and gas operations and impose fines for leaks, spills and emissions. The legislation also would mandate that a majority of property owners over a common-source energy supply must consent to drilling.
And the bill would redefine the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to place public health, safety and the environment above fostering or supporting the industry, which is the group’s current charge.
That change is important, as the commission has failed in its responsibilities, said Penny Weeber, a former resident of the Arapahoe Basin.
“I’ve seen my neighbor’s home become unlivable” because of noise from a nearby operation, Weeber said. “I’ve watched my neighbor Joel’s well become contaminated. COGCC is not protecting our water, it’s not protecting our health, and I urge you to make that change so that can happen.”
But many people in shirts proclaiming “I AM COLORADO OIL & GAS” gathered on the Capitol’s west steps to express displeasure with the bill.
Bradley Beck told the committee a working well sits in his Erie neighborhood, near a small park, and Encana Oil & Gas are “really good neighbors.” Beck said he rarely noticed the operation.
“Once in a while, you can hear something. But hell, once in a while you can smell Greeley from my home too.”
But another Erie resident said he and his two teenage daughters “are under siege. Erie is as much an oil field as it is a bedroom community.”
Local control is needed, and Fenberg’s measure is the right vehicle to provide it, said Brandy DeLange, legislative and policy advocate for the Colorado Municipal League.
Some local officials had a different perspective. Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer said the bill could demolish the economy in her county, home to the vast majority of Colorado oil operations and much natural gas work as well. Jobs would be lost, she said.
But counties and communities don’t have to enact tighter rules, as they’re optional, said Sen. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette.
Foote questioned industry proponents repeatedly as to how the bill would eliminate jobs. Some said tighter regulation would discourage companies from investing in the state and force others to leave. Others said fears of calamity are far overblown, and the industry would continue to profit.
Two more committee hearings in the Senate and three in the House are likely, Fenberg said, so everyone will have ample opportunity to comment.
“Plus I imagine a robust debate on the floor, and I really do feel like this bill will improve a little bit every step of the way,” Fenberg said.