Oil-and-Gas Commission Overhaul Advances Over GOP Objections

April 10, 2013

The bill is just one piece of a legislative package aimed at clamping down on the state’s booming oil-and-gas industry

DENVER–Gov. John Hickenlooper wasn’t wild about a bill to remove industry experts from the state oil-and-gas commission before, and it’s unclear whether he’ll like it any better now that it’s been reworked by House Democrats.

The House gave final approval Tuesday to House Bill 1269 after amending it to shift the commission’s regulatory emphasis from energy production to public health and environmental protection. The bill, approved 34-29 with no Republican votes, now goes to the Senate.

The bill bears little resemblance to the original version, which would have banned anyone working in the oil-and-gas industry from serving on the nine-member commission and which Hickenlooper had all but guaranteed that he would veto.

House Democrats removed the provision, replacing it with tougher disclosure and recusal standards for commissioners with a financial stake in the industry. Then Democrats tacked on an amendment that requires the commission to ensure that its mission to maximize resources “does not supersede” the impact on public health, safety, welfare or the environment.

Democrats said the move to “refocus” the commission would increase public confidence by striking a better balance between energy and the environment.

“I’m here to protect people, not property,” said state Rep. Jovan Melton (D-Aurora). “We have to put public health ahead of property rights.”

But Republicans said the newly amended bill would jeopardize the economy by weakening mineral rights and discouraging oil-and-gas production. State Rep. Ray Scott (R-Grand Junction) faulted Democrats for bowing to “hysteria” from a handful of suburban communities opposed to hydraulic fracturing.

“We’re reaching out to a hysterical group of a couple of districts, and we’re letting the minority control the majority,” said Scott. “I’m very, very concerned that we’re sending a very loud and very clear, continuing message to the number-one industry in state of Colorado that, ‘We’re not just going to regulate you–which they expect, and they understand–but we are attempting to control you. And control isn’t going to work.”

The bill is just one piece of a legislative package aimed at clamping down on the state’s booming oil-and-gas industry. Another measure, H.B. 1267, which would increase penalties for spills, is scheduled for a floor vote Wednesday.

State Rep. Perry Buck (R-Greeley) accused Democrats of conducting a “witchhunt on oil and gas.” A slew of Republican-sponsored amendments aimed at reducing the influence of environmental groups on the commission were defeated on the floor.

“This bill, like other bills we’ve run, is going to hurt the oil-and-gas industry,” said state Rep. Cheri Gerou (R-Evergreen). “The theme of this session is, ‘Let’s see what we can do to hurt the oil-and-gas industry, hurt jobs, and destroy the economy. That’s what this bill does.”

State Rep. Mike Foote (D-Lafayette), the bill’s sponsor, said the only hysteria was on the other side of the aisle.

“The hysteria I’ve heard is from the industry: ‘If we pass this bill, the sky is going to fall. If we pass this bill, we’re going to kill the goose that laid golden egg,’” said Foote. “The hysteria we’re hearing from industry is that this waste provision is going to infringe on property rights.”

Conservation Colorado, the state’s largest environmental group, had backed the effort to remove industry employees from the commission, but issued a statement after the vote in support of the amended bill.

“Although provisions in the bill were changed, we support efforts to increase disclosure and recusal requirements for the commission,” said Conservation Colorado executive director Pete Maysmith. “More importantly, the legislation enacts fundamental reforms of the commission–increasing protections for public health, environment and wildlife.”

Less enthusiastic were oil-and-gas representatives. Colorado Oil and Gas Association spokesman Doug Flanders described the group as “very disappointed in the overreach by the legislature.”

“We were hoping that the concerns of the 600,000 Coloradans who rely on their private property mineral rights would have been heard and acknowledged,” said Flanders.

The governor, who’s visiting Israel this week, had no immediate reaction to the amended bill. An official with the Department of Natural Resources told a House committee last month that the executive branch “can’t support this bill as it’s been introduced.”

During a debate on fracking last week at the University of Denver, Hickenlooper said fiddling with the commission “isn’t something you do lightly or without a lot of thought.”

Two Democrats, state Reps. Cherylin Peniston of Westminster and Ed Vigil of San Luis, joined Republicans in voting against the bill.

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