NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN: Gov. Polis pushes local controls on oil-gas decisions

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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, right, greets his mother, Susan Polis Schutz, as he make his way through the House of Representatives to deliver his first State of the State address to a joint session of the Colorado Legislature, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER  |  Heads up, oil and gas executives.

New Colorado Gov. Jared Polis made it clear Thursday he intends to grant more local control in decisions about where and how the state’s $32 billion oil and gas industry can drill and operate tank farms and other facilities.

Shortly after delivering his first State of the State speech, the Democratic governor acknowledged his advocacy of local influence on the state’s chief regulatory body for oil and gas.

“Right now, international investors don’t know the approach that Colorado will take with regard to regulating oil and gas,” Polis said. “The sooner that we can work with the Legislature to pass local control, the sooner we can improve the confidence of markets, and at least let them know what’s going on in Colorado.”

Polis inherits a long-running conflict in Colorado involving the industry and environmentalists concerned about the health and safety impacts of drilling along Denver’s ever-expanding suburbs. Thanks to advances in technology, Colorado has become the nation’s No. 5 natural gas producer. It ranks No. 7 in oil production.

Concerns about noise, methane emissions, tanker traffic and possible industrial accidents have fueled several ballot initiatives to restrict drilling. None have been successful.

Polis’ plan threatens to disrupt a tenuous compromise brokered by his predecessor. Democrat John Hickenlooper, a petroleum geologist, insisted on state regulatory control to give certainty to the industry as well as environmental protections that include the nation’s strictest methane regulations.

During his campaign, Polis, who was inaugurated Tuesday, also advocated stable health care markets, renewable energy, early childhood education and lower taxes for families and small businesses.

Republican leaders said they heard the word “free” a few too many times in Polis’ speech. They questioned where the funds will come from to pay for health care and education.

A minority in both chambers, Republicans noted that Colorado law requires a balanced budget every year, bans deficit spending, and voter approval of any tax increase or bond issue.

“I don’t mean this as a criticism of Gov. Polis, but he’s come from an environment in Congress where a dollar doesn’t mean what it does in Colorado,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert. “They can deficit spend, they can print money, they can raise tax rates without going to the people. And in Colorado, we can’t do any of those things.”

Polis has long supported a public health insurance option to stabilize a market in which rural Colorado residents pay some of the nation’s highest premiums. He formally proposed a state reinsurance program to assist private insurers in those markets. And he vowed to create a program to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.

The health care effort includes a new Office of Saving People Money on Health Care, led by Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera.

“We’re giving it a simple name because it is important,” he said.

Citing better technology and lowering costs, Polis reiterated his goal of 100 percent renewables dependence by 2040. Climate change, he said, directly threatens Colorado’s multibillion-dollar outdoor recreation and farming industries.

Polis also called for parental leave for state employees — and parental and medical leave for private sector workers. Democrats who control the Legislature are pushing a family leave law opposed by many businesses.

Polis, a tech and education entrepreneur, called for fully funding kindergarten for those students needing it by next fall. He’s also seeking paid preschool.

He also called for a tax break for families and small businesses that account for 90 percent of retailers in Colorado and suggested closing tax loopholes that he said benefit the largest, most influential corporations in the state.