Democrats fail in broad attempt to strengthen gas industry rules |

Democrats fail in broad attempt to strengthen gas industry rules

Nelson Harvey
Citizen Telegram Contributor

When a leak of about 1,100 barrels of hydrocarbons was reported at a Williams natural gas company plant near Parachute in early March, some area residents saw it as proof that oil and gas industry regulations in Colorado need to be stronger.

Yet when the Colorado Legislature wrapped up its business for the year last week, after a session in which lawmakers drafted at least 12 pieces of legislation that would have toughened industry rules, only two rules were on the books.

“This session was pretty underwhelming related to oil and gas bills,” said Frank Smith, director of organizing for the Grand Junction-based environmental group Western Colorado Congress. “There was no one concerted effort to pass a priority bill.”

One measure that passed, House Bill 1278, lowers the minimum amount of spilled material that gas companies are required to report to state authorities. The prior limit was five barrels of material; it is now one barrel.

However, the new law applies only to oil and gas exploration and production activities, so Smith said it may not have affected regulation of the Parachute Creek spill.

“That bill is a great step, but it may be too specific,” he added.

The other bill that made the cut was Senate Bill 202, which requires state oil and gas inspectors to inspect the worst performing or riskiest well sites before moving on to other sites in the state.

The bills that failed covered a wide range of gas-related territory. Gov. John Hickenlooper opposed some of them, and Tresi Houpt, a former Garfield County commissioner who also served on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said Hickenlooper’s views could have discouraged some conservative Democrats from voting for tougher rules.

“I was disappointed, honestly, that the governor’s office did not support these bills,” said Houpt. “If he had, I think they would have passed.”

Houpt traveled to Denver to testify in favor of another bill that would have altered the mandate of the oil and gas commission, the group charged with both fostering oil and gas drilling in Colorado and insuring the protection of public health.

The bill, HB 1269, would have removed the word “foster” from the agency’s mission statement, and would have banned anyone paid by the industry from serving on the commission.

Houpt said she doesn’t have a problem with industry representatives serving on the commission, but she wishes the mandate to foster development had been removed.

“It would have recognized that the current mandate doesn’t place public health, the environment and wildlife above the importance of extracting a resource,” she said.

HB 1269 attracted intense opposition from many employees and supporters of the oil and gas industry.

Larry McCown, another former Garfield County commissioner from Rifle seen by many as pro-industry, said he thought the bill was “discriminatory” against the oil and gas sector.

“I don’t think that sort of rule holds true with the insurance commission or any other board,” he said. “We don’t ban workers in any other industry from serving on these boards.”

Rulison resident Roy Savage, who owns 25,000 acres of ranchland west of Rifle and oversees the drilling efforts of 12 gas companies on his land, said he, too, was opposed to the idea of altering the commission’s mandate.

“That bill was destined to eliminate oil and gas drilling in Colorado,” he said. “The idea that we are going to de-certify anyone who works for a living from serving on a board is just anathema to me.”

Despite the failure of so many bills during this year’s session, Smith of Western Colorado Congress said the flurry of oil and gas-related proposals had certainly sparked a statewide conversation about gas drilling.

“We are probably looking to return next year with a more focused approach, working with folks from both sides of the aisle,” he said.

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