Next on Dems’ agenda: Gas, oil industry

Governor likely to oppose efforts

DENVER – Just as an emotional debate about gun rights is winding down at the state Capitol, Democrats are ready to take on another big target: the gas and oil industry.

The effort puts them on a collision course with the state’s top Democrat, Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Democrats in the Legislature have introduced six bills this month – with more on the way – to tighten environmental standards on the industry.

The Legislature passed tougher environmental laws in 2006, but that was before a shale drilling boom brought thousands of Front Range suburbanites into close contact with the industry.

Longmont and Fort Collins have banned hydraulic fracturing in their city limits, which has drawn them into a lawsuit against the state.

Hickenlooper maintains that the industry has a good safety record, and it should be regulated by the state, not cities or counties.

Democrats have not yet introduced a bill to assert local control over gas and oil drilling. But they have taken tentative steps to begin a crackdown on the industry.

Their first bill raises minimum fines for violations reported to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to $15,000 a day. The current minimum is $1,000 a day.

Bruce Baizel of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project in Durango testified at the bill’s first hearing Thursday.

“The efficient and fair use of penalties plays a key role in punishing violators,” Baizel said. “In comparison to other states, Colorado’s fines are weak.”

The House Transportation and Energy Committee passed the bill 8-5.

Rep. Perry Buck of Windsor and all four other Republicans opposed it.

“I think going from $1,000 to $15,000 is very harsh,” Buck said.

But the true battle over the slate of bills is not likely to be Democrats against Republicans. Rather, it’s legislative Democrats versus the Democratic executive branch.

Thursday afternoon, a Senate panel voted 3-2 for a bill to add about 65 employees to the COGCC – nearly doubling its staff – so it can inspect every gas and oil well in the state at least once a year.

But the Hickenlooper administration has asked for only five new employees and does not support the bill.

Energy industry groups also oppose the added inspectors.

Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Petroleum Association, said legislators are trying to usurp the COGCC, which has the expertise to regulate the industry.

“The industry doesn’t rely on inspectors. Inspections are just one tool in the regulators’ toolbox. But more importantly, the industry holds itself to very high standards,” Dempsey said.

The industry’s critics, however, point to examples such as a developing problem near Parachute Creek, near Rifle, where a plume of hydrocarbons has been spreading from near a gas processing plant. The source of the pollution still hasn’t been identified.

Democrats have other gas and oil bills that would:

Levy a tax on energy companies to pay for local government employees who monitor the industry.

Forbid COGCC commissioners from being employed by the energy industry, and refocus the commission’s main mission on environmental protection.

Require sellers to disclose whether someone else owns the mineral rights under their property.

Study the health effects of oil and gas development along the Front Range.

Even more controversial bills are on the way, if Democrats try to increase the 500-foot buffer zone between wells and homes that the COGCC adopted early this year.

jhanel@durangoherald.com

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