PERRY: Colorado oil industry execs and sycophants are right to be afraid — but not of local control


Y’all may not have been born yesterday, but most of you are probably too young or too new to Colorado to understand the oil-and-gas thing that’s getting out-state folks needlessly worked up.

A lot of oil-and-gas industry officials, and a some state lawmakers from rural and rural-ish parts of the state, are having a blowdown over Senate Bill 181. The measure would allow local governments to have a say in drilling and fracking operations. It would also ensure that the state’s oil-and-gas regulation agency make health and safety a priority in decision making, not profits.

If that sounds as sensible and auspicious as it sounds, it’s because it is.

Oil industry officials have predictably had a conniption over the proposal, saying it will decimate the industry, end tens of thousands of high-paying jobs and destroy Colorado’s economy.

No it won’t. They know it.

First, a little history for those of you who think Colorado’s oil business is a solid as the granite in Granite.

If you think SB 181 is a threat to Colorado’s oil boom, you either forgot about or never knew about Tom Wilscom’s. Or the Rattlesnake Club. Or the Zenith.

Those were some of Denver’s swankest restaurants back in the 1980s. It’s where the well-heeled whose shoes and lives were stained with oil-money went to drop loads of it, every night of the week.

Wilscom’s was an art deco dream of pastel mauve and gray. A kitchen staff in crisp whites fashioned lobster-anything behind a wall of glass while patrons sipped and supped on pretty good but seriously overpriced fare.

Denver was rocking the oil money back then. The United Bank building and several other sky-scrapers flew up and changed the city’s skyline forever. Larimer Square was hip and 16th Street had just been turned into a amazing pedestrian mall.

Denver’s thick oil riches even became the theme of the most popular show in America. “Dynasty” opened Wednesday nights during prime time with the city’s transformed skyline.

The only real threat to the state at the time was Two Forks Dam, which proponents warned had to be built or Colorado’s economic growth would come to an eternal stand still.

That clearly wasn’t the case.

What did happen was the price of crude oil plummeted in the mid-1980s. And the great oil town of Denver went bust in a bad way, in a very short time. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost. Denver’s Downtown became a virtual ghost town with more than 30 percent of its office space vacant.

As it turned out, oil companies have always build their operations on a house of cards. At any moment, a war, a tariff or an OPEC move could force oil companies to close up shop faster than Henry F. Potter’s Bank in Bedford Falls.

The market — not SB181 — is the oil industry’s biggest worry. And besides the usual boogie men that keep oil execs up at night, the threat of global climate change, and what the planet must do to cope with, is breathing hot air down the neck of every oil exec and employee in Colorado and around the world.

But oil aficionados worry that SB181 will run them out of town and the state long before electric cars push the market-price of a barrel of oil back down to single digits.

It won’t. The most important thing this measure does is allow local communities to have a say in oil-drilling setbacks from homes and schools, and just how much noise, dust, traffic and mess these operations can make, and where.

All of these outstate county commissioners and state lawmakers who line up to be oil-industry sycophants from places like Weld and Lincoln counties don’t get what this law does. It allows any community anywhere in Colorado to drill for oil pretty much anywhere they want, even in the goddam community swimming pool if they think that’s a good idea.

Tell state Sen. Vickie Marble to drill, baby, drill to her heart’s content out there on the plains and right smack dab in the middle of the Greeley Stampede — as long as voters there want to elect officials who love oil and oil money as much as she does. And while it all lasts.

There are about 50,000 “active” wells across the state, more half of them in or near Weld County. County commissioners there are more than welcome to do anything they want, within current state law, to let them do as they please on farm land, ranch land, no man’s land — but not land where communities want noise and dust mitigation when operations are a few hundred feet from someone’s home.

In places like Aurora, where the vast eastern plains are acceptable places to run a rig that no one pays attention to, oil execs can depend on having to worry much more about global warming and OPEC causing them grief than the Aurora City Council.

But drill rigs snuggled into housing developments and next to schools? No more 6-foot “screens” and wishing us all “good luck” with that. If you’re going to pump millions of dollars of gas and oil out of the ground, expect to play by the same rules communities impose on every other industry in and close to town.

History and common sense make it clear that Colorado’s oil boon will absolutely go bust again, but not because SB181 chases oil out of the state. That’s a job for the free-market capitalism that brought oil companies here in the first place.

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