State Dems, Polis introduce bill to hand oil and gas regulation to local governments — LINK TO NEW BILL

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EDITOR’S NOTE: State Democrats introduced Senate Bill 19-181 late Friday afternoon. The story was been updated, but was filed Thursday.

AURORA | Democratic leadership from both chambers of the state Legislature and Gov. Jared Polis on Friday introduced a bill that could grant Colorado cities and counties new controls over local oil and gas drilling.

Notably, the measure would change the mission of state regulators to focus on health and environment rather than fostering gas and oil development, the subject of a recent and controversial Colorado Supreme Court decision.

Senate Bill 19-181 would allow local governments to oversee oil and gas drilling in their jurisdictions, “including land use, surface impacts, siting and nuisance,” according to a summary of the measure. 

Democratic House officials said Thursday the bill would “grandfather” existing wells, applying only to new development.

A press conference regarding the measure was held before the bill was introduced on Friday.

The measure could signal a seismic win for some oil and gas activists, and magnify the importance of local elections for county commissions and city councils across the state, according to Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder.

Still, many activists and industry experts have expressed skepticism toward the bill, saying they’d reserve judgment until the details are unveiled to the public.

Anne Lee Foster, spokesperson for the anti-fracking group Colorado Rising, said the group will not comment on the specifics until they’ve had time to analyze the measure. 

“We find it a little bizarre that we are having a public support press conference when (the bill) is not public,” she said of Gov. Polis’ press conference at the State Capitol Thursday.

Foster charged oil and gas operators with skirting loopholes in existing law to continue producing fossil fuels. 

She also said Democrats should discuss the bill’s potential to reduce greenhouse gases and mitigate climate change by limiting oil and gas development. 

Scientific projections have shown that Colorado is at risk of sustained drought if greenhouse gases are not significantly reduced globally. Lawmakers did not overtly address the bill’s potential impact on climate change earlier this week. 

Industry groups, too, have said they need to see the guts of the legislation before forming an opinion.

“We are looking forward to our first opportunity to review the actual legislation as is customary in the stakeholder process and per Speaker Becker’s commitment to Colorado at the beginning of the legislative session,” Tracee Bentley, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council, said in a statement issued before the press conference Thursday afternoon.

After the event at the Capitol, Bentley condemned lawmakers’ drafting process.

“In my over 15 years of working with the Colorado state government, not having a thorough stakeholder process is unprecedented, especially for a bill that targets one industry but impacts every Coloradan,” Bentley said. “We are deeply disappointed that House and Senate leadership do not appear to value the stakeholder process nor the importance of having all stakeholders at the table on one of the most consequential proposals in Colorado history.”

If passed, the bill would alter the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and require the state body to bolster its policies surrounding orphaned wells, cumulative impacts, pipeline and well locations, and worker safety. State air quality experts would also have to establish “common sense rules that reduce harmful emissions including methane,” according to a summary of the measure.

The measure would also require a majority of mineral rights owners to sign off on drilling at a specific site. Currently, only one owner has to approve of drilling, even if the rights are shared by multiple parties. 

Local councils and commissions would not be required to adopt many of the powers afforded in the measure, Polis said in an interview following the announcement of the legislation. Instead, the measure would allow interested municipal entities to opt-in for enhanced regulation.

“No city, no county has to use the explicit authority under this bill,” Polis said. “It is entirely up to them whether and how they use it, and of course we maintain … the state backstop on health and safety.”

The bill would not address specific setback regulations, Polis said. Local governments would have the ability to increase  — or even shorten — setbacks, however, from the current state standard of 500 feet in most cases.

“Our bill doesn’t address setbacks one way or the other,” House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, said. “Local governments other than zoning authorities could possibly create a different setback … it has to be based in health, safety and welfare … it can’t be arbitrary.”

During the Capitol press conference, Erin Martinez, the woman who survived the deadly home explosion caused by a capped well in Firestone in 2017, addressed the media for the first time, and advocated for the broadened regulations promised in the upcoming bill.

Martinez described being tossed through the air during the explosion that killed her husband and brother. Her son was forced to jump out of a window to save his own life.

“With great tragedy should also come great change,” she said. “Human life should come first.”

Martinez said industry officials discovered yet another undisclosed well along her fence line months after she moved into a new home following the deadly explosion. She’s now in the process of moving again. 

“We need to have accuracy in the location of all oil and gas infrastructure,” she said. “The time is now to make a change.”

Sentinel Colorado staff writer Grant Stringer contributed to this story.