DENVER – They packed committee hearings, waved signs and even publicly heckled Colorado’s governor. But natural-gas and oil-drilling critics saw one political failure after another in the legislative session that ended this week.
Now, they’re mulling new strategies for new environmental controls on one of the state’s most politically powerful industries.
The challenge is great. Seven of nine major drilling proposals failed, some despite the support of the Legislature’s most powerful members. Amid opposition from the industry, and sometimes Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, lawmakers watered down most of the proposals and then killed them anyway. Some of their biggest ideas, such as statewide moratorium on the contentious drilling procedure known as fracking, were never even proposed.
The defeats had some drilling critics dejected.
“We had hoped for better,” said Peggy Tibbetts of Silt, who maintains an anti-fracking blog and hoped to see the Democratic Legislature put up safeguards the industry she opposes. The wish list included minimum fines for spills, a ban on energy industry employees from simultaneously serving on the state commission that regulates them, and more-frequent inspections at drilling sites.
Instead, drilling changes were modest. Lawmakers did agree on a bill to lower the level at which spills must be reported, from five barrels to one barrel. And the budget for next fiscal year includes money for 11 more drilling inspectors.
But on bigger matters, lawmakers kept the status quo, even with powerful lawmakers backing change.
They blamed the powerful industry.
“We had 23 oil and gas lobbyists working against bills that we tried to bring for the people of the state of Colorado,” said House Democratic Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, who sponsored an unsuccessful bill to increase water testing requirements in a populous northern Colorado area.
Another drilling critic, Senate Democratic Leader Morgan Carroll, said activists need to step up pressure next year to counter the influential natural-gas and lobby.
“Right now, it’s primarily people and residents versus a fairly powerful oil and gas lobby in the building,” said Carroll, adding that drilling protests are growing, but are largely “ground-game organizing,” not enough to overpower industry interests in the Capitol.
“The one thing that can topple an extremely well-funded special interest in this building is if enough citizens get involved,” Carroll concluded.
The prospect of working harder next year to see the bills advance frustrated Tibbetts, the Silt fracking opponent, who said lawmakers shouldn’t need a more persuading.
“I don’t know why we have to go knocking on their doors and take them out to lunch to show them how hard we’re working,” Tibbetts said.
A natural-gas and oil industry representative tried to calm worries Thursday. Stan Dempsey Jr., head of the Colorado Petroleum Association, said the industry is prepared for change, but wants it to come from the regulators already charged with the job, not state lawmakers.
Dempsey said drilling critics could see many of their fears addressed through upcoming rule changes, especially new air-quality standards expected later this year from the state health department.
“We don’t need to wait until the next legislative session,” Dempsey said. He praised lawmakers for not giving in to demands to step in and overrule the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
“We’ve experienced this fight before. When one party doesn’t get exactly what they want, they tend to run to the Legislature. And that’s of concern because the commission spent hundreds of hours on this rule-making, taking into account all the science and all the stakeholders,” he said.