Oil Pump and Longs Peak, Colorado

A pump jack with Longs Peak in the distance.

Colorado’s Senate -- in session during a blizzard -- gave its final approval Wednesday to an omnibus bill proposing a sweeping overhaul of the state’s oil and gas industry.

The party-line vote to approve Senate Bill 181 -- 19-15, with one absence -- came after less than an hour of debate, compared to the more than six hours of debate Tuesday night and a 12-hour committee session on the topic last week.

Now the measure goes to the House for a discussion in committee and, if it’s approved there, a floor vote.

The bill -- co-sponsored by Sen. Steve Fenberg and Rep. KC Becker, both Boulder Democrats -- seeks to to let local governments inspect industry operations and levy fines for leaks, spills and emissions. Those governments could also adopt stricter rules for new oil and gas developments.

In addition, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission would have to prioritize public health and safety and the environment over fostering the industry, its current charge.

Republicans complained that the session was being held in the midst of a "bomb cyclone" snowstorm.

"Passing SB 181 in the midst of today's Bomb Cyclone shows just how much Senate Democrats really care about putting 'public health and safety first,'" said Colorado GOP Chairman Jeff Hays in an emailed statement.

"It's a firm belief of mine, I spent six years in the Marine Corps, that we have to get the job done. That's a Marine spirit," Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, told 9News in response to complaints about the session during the storm. "It's extremely important that with a 120-day legislative session that we have that taxpayers are utilizing us to the best of their ability."

Familiar arguments against the oil and gas proposal were heard again Wednesday, with Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, calling the bill terrible and others warning of the economic damage that tighter industry regulation would wreak across the state.

The bill would create uncertainty across the industry, Sonnenberg said, which would in turn discourage new business coming into the state.

“Any smart businessman is not going to invest in a community, in a state, if there is uncertainty,” Sonnenberg said.

Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, elaborated on that point.

“A little bit more regulation makes a big difference if you’re a gas producer in the West. It means that you won’t drill new wells,” Rankin said. “Whether or not you believe that’s a reality, perception is true. And we all believe, those of us who watch the industry in the West, that we will have essentially no new drilling and production will tail off very quickly.”

Although they still opposed the bill, several other Republicans praised Fenberg for his willingness to amend the measure several times, tightening language and clarifying unclear points.

Fenberg acknowledged the bill’s imperfections before his fellow senators and said much work remains before the bill is potentially enacted and after.

“We have a long road in front of us,” Fenberg said. “You have my commitment to address any unintended consequences that come from this bill. If that means future legislation next year to fix that, you have my word that I want to work with you to do that.”

The bill's passage sparked praise from some groups but drew condemnation from others.

In a statement, Kelly Nordini, executive director of Conservation Colorado, thanked the Senate for prioritizing health, safety and the environment over profits.

"This bill is nearly a decade in the making," Nordini said. "We urge the House to act swiftly pass these common-sense reforms, and send them to Governor Polis to sign so we can put Coloradans' health and safety first." 

Representatives of the Colorado Sierra Club, League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans and Western Colorado Alliance, among others, echoed that sentiment.

But a joint statement by the Colorado Petroleum Council and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association said the bill, despite amendments, "still attempts to cripple the industry’s ability to continue operations in Colorado."

The statement added: "We are grateful to the senators who stood up in opposition to Senate Bill 181, a bill that could damage Colorado's economy for years to come. A customary stakeholder process in the crafting of this bill would have yielded a much more workable outcome, and we remain shocked that a measure so consequential to the future of our state would be rammed through a legislative body in under two weeks without relevant input or sufficient analysis by people who actually understand the impacts that these decisions have on people’s lives."

The two industry groups said they "will continue to work with any lawmakers who are willing to listen to the truth about Senate Bill 181. Our state deserves better than what we have witnessed in the Senate in recent days." 

Fenberg said the bill likely will be heard in a House committee in about a week. Becker was not immediately available for comment.

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