DENVER–The much-anticipated cage match between the Democratic legislature and Gov. John Hickenlooper over drilling regulations may be turning into something of a blowout.
Democrats are briskly moving bills aimed at cracking down on the oil-and-gas industry through the legislative pipeline over the objections of the executive branch. But if Democrats are worried about the prospect of a gubernatorial backlash, they’re not showing it.
The latest example came at Monday’s hearing on House Bill 1267, which would dramatically hike fines on drilling violations. Department of Natural Resources Deputy Director Bob Randall asked the committee to tweak the bill in order to give state regulators more flexibility in determining penalties.
“We’re not sure that this bill gets it exactly right,” said Randall. “The bill today is $5,000 per day per violation, which could work against us. It could constrain the COGCC’s flexibility if the cumulative fine is too high for a given violation.”
Democrats on the Senate State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee listened politely, then proceeded to advance the bill on a 3-2 party-line vote with no changes.
“Quite frankly, there’s not a lot of confidence in the fine structure,” said state Sen. Matt Jones (D-Longmont). “And so having a minimum ensures that when there are really bad cases, that there is a penalty commensurate with that.”
Democrats may feel emboldened in part because Hickenlooper himself is sending mixed signals about his stance on drilling legislation. On the same day that Randall was attempting to convince lawmakers to relax the bill’s provisions, the governor said in an interview with KDVR-TV that he would sign the measure.
“We’ve said from the beginning that we’re going to increase fines because we want to hold the industry accountable,” Hickenlooper told KDVR’s Eli Stokols in a Monday interview.
Republicans worry that the Democratic governor is more concerned about reaching a compromise with his party’s left wing than defending the state’s largest industry. Even though Hickenlooper has touted the state’s regulatory framework as a model for the nation, he appears reluctant to use his clout to stop the crackdown.
“What you’re seeing is that the left is clearly frustrated that Gov. Hickenlooper isn’t anti-oil-and-gas enough to suit them, and they’re trying to push him a little bit,” said state Sen. Greg Brophy (R-Wray).
According to Republicans, it’s working. “Democrats put forward this whole package of bills on oil and gas, and he’s shown he’s willing to meet them halfway instead of saying, ‘No, we need to grow private-sector jobs and the economy,’” said Brophy. “And unless he does that, I’m really concerned about our economic prospects.”
Democratic legislators did agree to water down House Bill 1269, which would have banned oil-and-gas employees from serving on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Instead, the bill heightens disclosure requirements for any board member working in the industry.
At the same time, the bill would change the commission’s primary charge from supporting fossil-fuel development to protecting the environment and public safety. In his Monday interview, Hickenlooper hinted he may veto the measure.
“We’re still working on trying to improve it and get to a place where we can support it,” said Hickenlooper. “If we’re going to get to a place where you’re going to try and change the mission of one of the major regulatory bodies in the state, you probably want to have a longer, more robust, far-reaching process to get people’s input and make sure you hear all the different constituencies.”
Democrats have also included four oil-and-gas well inspectors to the budget proposal, although they had originally sought to add eight.
A third measure, House Bill 1268, which essentially reiterates the requirement for realtors to inform buyers when a property’s mineral rights are owned by a separate entity, passed the House with bipartisan support.
Hickenlooper once famously drank fracking fluid to demonstrate its safety. Republicans say they hope the governor still has the stomach to fight for the industry before the state’s economy starts regurgitating jobs.
“I need the governor to take a stronger stand,” said Brophy. “Right now in board rooms across the country, business people are deciding where to spend their research and development dollars next year. And if the perception is that Colorado is a hostile environment, they’re going to give the benefit of the doubt to someplace else.”