DENVER – Colorado senators gave initial approval early Wednesday to a sweeping overhaul of the state’s oil and gas regulations after hours of protest from rural Coloradans and oil and gas workers.
Senate Bill 181 was approved by the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee on a party-line vote; it now heads to the Senate Finance Committee. The bill would rewrite the mission of the state’s oil and gas regulator, impose stricter air-quality monitoring and protect mineral rights owners from having their land forcibly drilled, among other things.
SB 181 joins a growing list of controversial bills that have captured the attention of the state, drawing residents from across Colorado to protest or defend them in hours of emotional testimony. Oil and gas reform, along with House Bill 1032, which adjusts requirements of sex education, and HB 1177, which empowers law enforcement to seize firearms in certain situations, have stirred fierce opposition from Colorado’s rural residents.
But all three bills have passed easily through committee hearings and debates on the House floor, where Democratic majorities block Republican objections.
The state House has made rural Colorado a particular focus this year by re-branding its former agricultural committee as the Rural Affairs Committee and charged it with handling health care, affordable housing, agriculture and water quality. But rural residents have routinely protested some of the House’s other priorities, such as limiting firearm access for the mentally ill, expanding definitions of sexual education and giving local governments control of oil and gas development.
In response, some rural counties like Montezuma have already vowed to defy new legislation. Last week, for instance, Montezuma County commissioners passed a resolution making the county a “gun sanctuary,” where HB 1177 would not be enforced. (Sheriff Steve Nowlin has not endorsed the action, however.)
On Tuesday night, rural Coloradans objected to SB 181 on the grounds that it would take away some of the few well-paying jobs in their regions.
Farmer Gary Melcher, from the far eastern town of Holly, told lawmakers that oil and gas development is often a necessary second income for farmers. He asked the committee to delay the bill – which was introduced and heard by the committee within five days, a fast timeline by legislative standards – and consider the voices of rural Colorado.
“Too often, rural Colorado is left out,” he said. “It is particularly apparent that they were left out of this process.”