A controversial bill proposing sweeping regulatory changes to Colorado’s oil and gas industry passed a key test in the Senate Tuesday after hours of debate and procedural feet dragging.
The debate over Senate Bill 181 began Tuesday morning, but Republican senators then requested the measure be read at length, argued over whether use of a phone broke the chamber’s rules and asked for multiple recesses.
They said the bill should have consulted more industry leaders as it was drafted.
Senate bill sponsor Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, took issue, saying he held more than 90 meetings while writing the bill, and if that isn’t a robust stakeholder process, he’d like that chunk of his life back.
But the question wasn’t the number of meetings, but rather the quality, said Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument. "The people who came to the table … don’t necessarily feel that they have, in fact, been heard.”
A third vote of approval is required before the measure moves to the House.
The bill would let local governments inspect industry operations and levy fines for leaks, spills and emissions. The governments also could adopt stricter rules for oil and gas developments.
And the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission would have to prioritize public health and safety and the environment over fostering the industry, its current mission.
Fenberg and House Speaker KC Becker, also a Boulder Democrat, said it's overdue to let Coloradans rather than oil and gas developers control the fossil fuel industry.
Fenberg sought to dispel some claims, noting that tighter regulations must be rational.
“If someone is being unreasonable, I imagine, and this is a crazy idea, the oil and gas industry will go to court. Just like they currently do. All the time,” he said.
Many have said the measure echoes Proposition 112, which state voters shot down Nov. 6. That question would have increased setbacks 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.
But the bill neither creates nor mentions setbacks, Fenberg said.
Over-regulating the industry would cost Colorado, particularly Weld County, its jobs, tax dollars and property values, said Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley. He compared the legislation to class warfare and “economic racism,” which would devastate his community’s economy.
“Health and safety is extremely important to all of us in this chamber,” said Sen. Rob Woodward, R-Loveland. “However, jobs, food, schools, transportation, heat are just as important.”
“Where is the state of Colorado going to backfill that money that’s lost and the economic impact that the industry has on the state?” asked Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, who in recent days posted comments on Facebook suggesting she favors parts of Colorado seceding from the state over the issue. “I feel compelled to let the state know what that chatter is about.”
The bill likely would reduce tax revenue for many communities, said Lundeen. “It’s certainly not going to expand the revenue that comes in,” he said.
But Fenberg stood his ground, saying the bill means to protect Coloradans' health and safety and does not amount to the economic boogeyman so many have drawn it to be.
The measure could go before the body again Wednesday for a third and final vote, assuming the Capitol isn't shuttered by an expected blizzard.