DENVER–The Colorado General Assembly adjourned Wednesday after a stranger-than-fiction moment that saw Democrats kill a key environmental bill even though it was expected to pass with bipartisan support.
House Bill 1267 would have raised fines on oil-and-gas violations from $1,000 to $15,000 per day, the first increase since 1955.
The measure had the backing of the governor, the industry and more than a dozen Republicans, but the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Mike Foote (D-Lafayette), refused to allow a House vote.
“There were a number of folks on the Republican side who pushed to have the bill brought up and have the fines approved, but the Democratic House Speaker and the sponsor made the conscious decision to have it die on the calendar,” said state Rep. Frank McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch).
Why? Foote disagreed with the Senate’s decision to remove a provision from the bill that set a minimum daily fine for significant violations. A conference committee voted earlier Wednesday to reinsert the minimum fine, but lower it from $5,000 to $2,500 per day.
The Senate refused to go along with the revised bill and approved a version without the minimum fine. Rather than allow the bill to be passed with no minimum, Foote opted to have the bill die without a vote.
At the conference committee, Foote said the minimum fine was necessary because the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry, routinely reduces its fines for violations.
“Anyone that’s been in the business of enforcing penalties as I have for the last 10 years knows that the threat of a maximum fine is meaningless unless the agency actually has some intention to impose the maximum fine,” said Foote, a former Boulder County prosecutor. “Currently what we see with COGCC today is that they rarely have the intention to impose the maximum fine that they already have within their authority.”
State Sen. Greg Brophy (R-Wray) argued that imposing a minimum fine on significant infractions “doesn’t affect the worst, it only affects the least.”
“The bill that passed the Senate had broad bipartisan support–it passed 30-5,” said Brophy. “If you want to work with the minority party and find true compromise, then what we ought to do is just stick to the Senate version of the bill.”
Shortly after adjournment, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an executive order asking the COGCC to consider raising penalties on its own.
“The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission should re-evaluate its enforcement philosophy and strive to structure fines and penalties to ensure that operators comply with rules and respond promptly and effectively to any impacts from such violation,” said the order.
It’s not every day that a Democrat kills a proposal near and dear to a core constituency, in this case the environmental movement, which had thrown its support behind the penalty hike. Afterward, Conservation Colorado issued a statement backing the decision to nuke the bill, saying the sponsors “rightly let it die in the House.”
Foote’s proposal was the last of a package of ill-fated bills designed to crack down on the state’s oil-and-gas industry. Despite comfortable Democratic majorities in both houses, nearly all of the measures were defeated due to opposition from the governor, the industry, and a handful of Democrats.
“At times working in concert with the Hickenlooper administration, the industry was able to defeat or significantly weaken measures that would have brought greater transparency and accountability to their operations and given equal weight to protection of environment, public health and communities,” said Conservation Colorado executive director Pete Maysmith in a statement.
Don’t blame oil-and-gas companies for the defeat of H.B. 1267, said McNulty.
“Mike Foote wanted the whole thing, and if he didn’t get what he wanted, he was going to take his ball and go home,” said McNulty. “They let a pro-environmental bill with bipartisan support die in the sand.”