For more than a decade, Coloradans impacted by oil and gas development near their homes have clashed with the state’s powerful fossil-fuel industry inside courtrooms, agency hearings, town halls and city council meetings. The hotly anticipated package of oil and gas reforms introduced by Democrats this week is unlikely to bring an end to Colorado’s long-running fracking wars — but if passed, it will substantially shift the terrain on which those battles are fought.
“Coloradans simply do not have confidence that our laws are sufficient to protect their health and safety — and they’re right,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, at a press conference announcing the bill today, February 28. “Coloradans are looking to their leaders for change. Today, we are announcing change.”
Fenberg was joined by Governor Jared Polis, House Speaker KC Becker, and a host of other Democratic lawmakers and municipal officials at the State Capitol for the bill’s announcement, which sets the stage for one of the highest-profile legislative fights of this session. Full details of the legislation won’t be available until it's formally introduced in the coming days — a fact that was immediately seized upon by Colorado Rising, the anti-fracking group behind last year’s “safer setbacks” measure, Proposition 112.
“We have no comment on this bill until we actually see the language,” Anne Lee Foster, a spokeswoman for Colorado Rising, said in a statement. “Oil and gas thrives on seemingly innocuous loopholes that allow them to skirt the full effect of the law and regulations. We will be diligently reviewing the bill to ensure that it does afford the health, safety and welfare protections necessary for people and the environment.”
For once, anti-fracking activists and the oil and gas industry agreed: "When CPC finally sees the legislation, we will carefully consider each piece and have further comment after that," said the Colorado Petroleum Council's Tracee Bentley in a statement.
The bill outlined by Democrats on Thursday revolves around two major reforms to Colorado oil and gas law: increased local control for municipal governments, and a change to the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency that regulates drilling.
Under current law, city and county governments have little to no authority to restrict or regulate the oil and gas activity that occurs within their borders. As long as an operator buys or leases surface property for an extraction site and obtains a state permit, it can drill almost anywhere it wants, even in dense, heavily residential areas that municipalities haven’t zoned for industrial development.
The legislation announced Thursday would change that by empowering municipal governments to use their zoning and land-use authority to control where and how drilling can occur. While the bill, as expected, won’t increase statewide setback distances as proposed by Proposition 112, it will give local governments the power to impose their own setback requirements, lawmakers said.
“When it comes to oil and gas, we don’t have a say,” said Adams County Commissioner Eva Henry, who appeared alongside state legislators in support of the bill. “It’s time for that to change. I’m proud to support this bill because it will give communities clear authority to tailor rules and regulations to meet their needs.”
The bill’s other key reform relates to a small but important piece of statutory language that defines state oil and gas regulators’ mission. Since its creation in 1951 — long before technologies like fracking and horizontal drilling transformed the industry, and long before scientists concluded that fossil fuels were warming the global climate to catastrophic effect — state law has charged the COGCC with “fostering” the development of Colorado’s oil and gas resources. Agency officials and industry interests have long argued that this statute ties its hands in the permitting process, and last month the Colorado Supreme Court agreed, affirming that current law requires only a “balance” between economic development and health and safety considerations.
That would change under the proposed legislation, which would replace “foster” with “regulate” in the COGCC’s mission statement. The bill would also alter the makeup of the seven-member commission itself, which under current law is required to have three representatives of the oil and gas industry and a fourth member who earns royalties from oil and gas production. These and other changes, Democrats said, will ensure that COGCC regulators will prioritize health and safety when permitting new development.
“Protecting the Colorado way of life means ensuring every community is safe and has access to clean air and water,” said Polis. “It certainly means that Coloradans should be safe in their own homes.”
Polis teared up as he introduced the press conference’s final speaker: Erin Martinez, who in 2017 survived a home explosion in Firestone that killed her husband, Mark Martinez, and her brother, Joey Irwin. The blast was later linked to a severed pipeline from a nearby oil and gas well operated by Anadarko Petroleum.
“Nobody should ever have to experience what my family has had to go through,” said Martinez. “The only way to make sure this never happens again is to learn from this tragedy and create safer regulations and guidelines that put human safety first.”
Other provisions in the bill would reform forced pooling — a process by which mineral owners can be compelled against their will to lease the rights to drill for oil and gas beneath their homes — and address so-called orphan wells, abandoned wells whose operators have gone out of business. And while a separate bill focused on mitigating climate change is expected to be introduced in the legislature soon, the bill announced Thursday won't ignore the climate implications of oil and gas development, either.
The bill, said Becker, "directs our state's air-quality experts to take the next steps to reduce harmful emissions from oil and gas, including climate-change-inducing methane gas."
Once introduced, the bill could move quickly through the legislature, as Democrats seek to avoid a long, drawn-out legislative battle amid what will likely be heavy opposition from the oil and gas industry. For many Coloradans directly affected by proposed drilling projects near their homes, passage of the bill can't come soon enough.
"I'm hopeful that the legislature will act this year and give us some relief," says Susan Noble, an activist with the group North Range Concerned Citizens, which was formed to oppose proposed drilling projects in north Commerce City. "It will make a huge difference for not just us, but the other 6,000 applications that are in the pipeline. The entire state is at risk — everyone who lives here. We all breathe the same air."
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