Big Reform of Colorado Oil & Gas Headed to Governor

The Colorado statehouse. (Chris Marshall/CNS)

DENVER (CN) – The Colorado Senate approved the biggest reform on big oil and gas in decades by a 19-16 vote along party lines Wednesday morning, following several amendments suggested by the industry.

Lawmakers tempered the bill – which aims to overhaul the scope and mission of the state’s oil and gas commission – with 34 amendments, including one to make the members of the state Oil and Gas Conservation Committee salaried state employees. They currently serve as volunteers.

Majority leader Stephen Fenberg, D-Boulder, who sponsored the bill, pointed to language that prevents the bill from being used by local authorities to ban drilling in their communities. Critics worried the bill created a backdoor moratorium as new permits can be paused while new rules are put in place, severely altering the $31 billion industry the Colorado Petroleum Council says supports more than 232,000 jobs.

Although criticized by many in the oil and gas industry and by Republican lawmakers who said the bill was slammed through without sufficient input, supporters of the Protect Public Welfare Oil and Gas Operations say the bill addresses community-driven issues that have reached a boiling point.

“To say that this did not have a robust debate through its time would be incorrect,” Fenberg said. Between both chambers, the bill circulated five committees with each taking between 6 and 12 hours of public testimony.

“While a few critical amendments were added that begin to address some of industry’s concerns and provide a degree of certainty to our member companies, our industry remains firmly opposed to this bill because it threatens one of the pillars of Colorado’s economy,” said Colorado Petroleum Council spokesman Ben Marter, in a statement. “While we clearly disagree on this bill, we appreciate that legislative leaders heard us and opened a dialogue in the final two weeks about the unintended, and intended, consequences of the legislation as introduced.”

But with each step the bill took toward easing industry concerns, support from environmental and activist groups waned.

“There were some very obvious loopholes and major concessions granted to industry,” said Anne Lee Foster, spokesperson for grass-roots organization Colorado Rising. Colorado Rising sponsored the failed 2018 ballot initiative that sought to create a statewide half-mile buffer between new drilling operations and homes.

“While SB 181 does not address all of the concerns and threats associated with industrial fracking activity, it is a desperately needed tipping back of the enormously unbalanced scales in favor of people and environment over corporate profits,” Foster added in an email.

The most fundamental change from the bill lies in the very mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, shifting from the development of natural resources to regulating them “in a manner that protects public health, safety, and welfare.”

SB 181 also gives local governments the ability to self-regulate local drilling operations and boosts the number of mineral-rights owners who must consent in order for forced pooling – the forced taking of private land for drilling operations – to occur.

While Gov. Jared Polis has not explicitly commented on the bill since its introduction, he worked with Democratic lawmakers on early drafts and campaigned on a promise to wean the state off nonrenewable fossil fuels. Many assume he will sign it.

In the weeks leading up to this vote, more than 32,000 Colorado residents joined the Facebook group “Recall Colorado Governor Jared Polis,” citing the “fast track, back-door legislation for SB 181 advancing.”

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