FORT COLLINS—It’s been a rough year for the oil-and-gas industry in Colorado: First there were the floods, then the anti-fracking initiatives, and now state Democrats are planning to spearhead another crackdown on drilling.
House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst (D-Boulder) said Wednesday the oil-and-gas industry can expect to see in 2014 revamped versions of bills introduced but ultimately killed during the 2013 legislative session.
“I don’t apologize for the regulations that we’ve done on oil and gas,” said Hullinghorst, who spoke on a panel at this week’s Natural Gas Symposium at Colorado State University.
“I just think we need to build on that,” she continued.
“Obviously our constituents are telling us that we do. I think we’ll find some solutions. I think we’ll pass a couple bills this year, they won’t be monumental, but I think we will be able to chip away at some of those issues that we need to,” Hullinghorst added.
Those issues include increasing setbacks around drilling sites, stiffening fines for spills, and reconfiguring the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Bills on those topics introduced by Democrats in the previous session wound up dying thanks largely to the opposition of Gov. John Hickenlooper.
This year, she said, the governor’s office is working with legislators to resurrect the penalties bill “so that it will be acceptable to everybody.”
“We hope you all will have an opportunity to be involved in that, but we’ll see this bill I’m pretty sure again because this is one we really do need to move forward on,” she said. “Our fines are too low in Colorado right now.”
State Sen. Greg Brophy (R-Wray) said he worried that tougher regulations would push energy investors out of Colorado, pointing out that the state has recently lost industry jobs.
“Shell pulled out of Colorado just within the last 60 days. They didn’t pull out of oil shale–they’re still working on it in two other locations–but they’re no longer working on it in Colorado,” said Brophy. “That to me is an example of reaching the tipping point where it’s more attractive to be somewhere else.”
But Hullinghorst said tighter regulations were needed to strike a balance between the industry and anti-fracking advocates. Four cities—Boulder, Broomfield, Fort Collins and Lafayette—have anti-fracking measures on the Nov. 5 ballot.
“There were a lot of our constituents that just simply wanted to ban these operations altogether or they wanted to have a moratorium and they wanted that to be done at a state level,” said Hullinghorst. “Those of us who introduced bills in the House last year don’t agree to that approach. We feel there needs to be a balancing of these issues.”
Brophy argued that anti-fracking groups seeking “balance” have yet to identify a health or environmental problem with hydraulic fracturing that isn’t already addressed by the state legislature’s 2007 regulatory overhaul.
State legislators are pushing bills instead of relying on the COGCC because that’s what they do, he said, “even if the problem only exists in our own mind and in the minds of a handful of people that we’ve talked to.”
“If we ever identify a real problem that has a real solution that actually exists, then compromise or consensus on that problem is quite easy,” said Brophy. “Where we won’t reach consensus is this: where the problem only exists in the eyes of one party and it’s not a problem in the eyes of the other party. The jobs that my neighbors have matter a lot to me, and new regulations on top of what is already the most highly regulated industry in the most highly regulated state in the union doesn’t constitute a new problem to me.”
He called for a public education effort on the benefits of oil-and-gas development.
“I’m ready and willing to go to work on educating folks about the benefits of this, and I’m also ready and willing to talk about some of the forces that are lined up against this effort,” said Brophy.
Hullinghorst said her constituents don’t want to hear it. “I’m very confident we can make that [striking a balance] work, but it takes not denying the problem, saying, ‘Well if you just knew the facts, you’d think this was all okay’—that doesn’t work,” she said.