Senate Bill 181, Colorado Democrats’ sweeping package of oil and gas reforms, cleared the House Appropriations Committee today, March 27, and will soon be headed to the floor later for what could be its final hurdle: a vote of the full House, where Democrats hold a comfortable seventeen-seat majority.
But as the legislature’s lower chamber prepares for a potentially decisive vote, supporters of SB 181 are sounding the alarm about the possibility of further amendments that could weaken the bill — and perhaps even jeopardize its passage entirely.
"We strongly encourage the legislature to pass SB 181 without amendments," Anne Lee Foster, spokeswoman for the anti-fracking group Colorado Rising, said in a statement. "The oil and gas industry thrives on fear, uncertainty and doubt to get their way, and the time it would take to get back through the Senate because of amendments would only allow the industry to increase these tactics, and potentially kill the bill."
The oil and gas industry, which has vehemently opposed the bill since its introduction last month, has been lobbying House Speaker KC Becker to offer several amendments before a vote on the floor of the House. One would place further conditions on the regulations that can be enacted by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency that oversees drilling, while another would "professionalize" the seven-member commission, meaning it would no longer consist of volunteer members of the public.
A spokesperson for Becker didn't return a request for comment on whether she plans to offer any amendments to the bill before a vote — which was initially scheduled to take place later today but has now been pushed back.
Activists already weren't happy with some last-minute tweaks made to SB 181 in the Senate. Following talks with Republicans and industry representatives prior to a final vote earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader and bill sponsor Steve Fenberg offered a series of conciliatory amendments, which were approved by the upper chamber despite activists' concerns that the changes "stripped power from the intent of the bill."
Now, Fenberg's counterparts in the House can choose to either pass the version of SB 181 approved by the Senate, or amend the bill further before final passage. If the House were to pass an amended version, the bill would need to either be sent back to the Senate or to a conference committee, a special panel tasked with ironing out the differences between the two versions of a bill.
That could pose major problems for the bill’s passage, supporters fear. Democrats hold a slim majority in the upper chamber, and activists worry that continued pressure from the oil and gas lobby could flip the two Democratic votes needed for the bill’s defeat.
There’s also the possibility that Republican delay tactics could prevent the Senate from passing a new version of the bill before the legislative session ends in early May. Objecting to the speed with which Democrats have advanced SB 181 and other legislation, GOP lawmakers earlier this month began employing filibuster-like tactics to slow down Senate business, including requesting that a 2,000-page bill be read at length on the floor. After Democrats used computers to speed-read the bill, Republicans sued, and obtained a court judgment barring such speed-reading going forward.
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Asked whether Governor Jared Polis would prefer the House to pass an unamended bill, which would send SB 181 to his desk to be signed into law, a spokesperson for the governor declined to comment.
As the House prepares to vote on the bill, environmental and community activists who have spent years fighting for tougher regulations on oil and gas drilling are urging Becker to pass a "clean bill," fearing that the opportunity to pass these long-awaited reforms could be slipping through their fingers.
"Now is the time to stand up and make it known that oil and gas does not control Colorado any longer," said Foster. "We need strong leadership for the people of Colorado right now."
Update, March 27: The House is no longer scheduled to vote on SB 181 later today, Colorado Public Radio's Bente Birkeland reports.