Bill To Make Oil And Gas Tampering A Felony In Colorado Ignites Debate

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"If you put an entire community in danger, that shouldn't be a felony?" asked  Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling during a packed committee hearing on Feb. 16.

The topic of debate was Senate Bill 35, a measure that would increase the penalty for tampering with oil and equipment and attempting to interrupt operations.  Since it was first introduced, SB 35 has generated a lot of public interest. It has consistently been one of the "most accessed bills" on the state's legislative website.

But opponents fear the bill is about more than tampering with equipment.

"This is nothing about peaceful protests," said Sonnenberg. "Chain yourself to the fence, I don't care. Stand there with the signs, I don't care."

The sticking point is language in the bill that says a person could not attempt to alter, obstruct, interrupt or interfere with any equipment associated with oil or gas drilling. According to Denver resident Sabrina Seaver, one of the many members of the public to testify against the bill, the wording is just too vague.

"It would be possible for somebody to exercise their free right to assemble and their right to free speech and still be arrested and charged," said Seaver.

She and other opponents said they don't condone tampering with equipment valves and putting people in danger, but she wants residents to have a voice in protesting against the energy industry.

"These are people who are just looking to make sure that their property stays safe, that their bodies are safe," she said. "Where's the concern for them?"

Democratic Sen. Daniel Kagan of Denver said he worries people would be too afraid to do any type of protest if the measure passed.

"By golly, you don't risk a felony conviction, being deprived of your gun rights, being deprived of your ability to rent an apartment, being deprived of your right to vote," he said. "For the rest of your life, you'll be a felon."

Democratic Sen. Rhonda Fields of Aurora believes the measure is unnecessary.

"No-one is tampering with these oil rigs. This is just not taking place in the state of Colorado," she said.

According to state figures, in the last three years there was one recorded case of a person being convicted of tampering with oil and gas equipment.

Supporters of SB 35 said tampering is a national problem, citing the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline, among others. They argue it's important to be proactive. 

"We've seen a significant increase in trespassers coming and taking the copper wiring found at many of our facilities, whether they sell the copper or what not," said supporter Tracee Bentley with the Colorado Petroleum Council. "Any time you remove a piece of wiring, regardless of what it's made of, you're compromising the system."

As oil and gas drilling -- including fracking -- continues to move closer to more populated areas, some lawmakers worry it could set the stage for more confrontations. Republican Sen. Vicky Marble from Fort Collins said the increased penalty is overdue.

"I mean this is a terrorist act, basically, to me," she said.

Republicans delayed the vote on the measure mid-debate to wait for updated information on potential financial impacts to the state. The bill has now cleared the state Senate and is headed for debate in the House.

Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.