Here’s What’s At Stake As Colorado Debates Oil And Gas Regulations

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Originally published on March 20, 2019 2:08 pm

The basement of the state Capitol is ground zero for legislative strategizing. Lobbyists take over the small cafeteria and crowd around tables with lawmakers for several hours. Some walk into the bathrooms still talking on their phones about legislation. It’s here in this noisy basement where the oil and gas industry has been mounting fierce opposition to stronger regulations on the industry.

On Monday, Douglas Bernero, who works for Crestone Peak Energy in Denver, sat on a bench writing out his testimony against the bill. Behind him, energy industry workers handed out free sandwiches, bags of Doritos and clipboards to other people who wanted to write out their concerns.

“We go to great lengths to not disturb the neighbors when we drill or complete a new well,” Bernero said.

He specifically fears the part of the bill that would give local governments more say over setbacks and drilling operations.

“The fact that they’re enabling more control in local communities will possibly slow down our drilling and completion operations when we’re already going to great lengths to be as safe as we can and be good stewards and good neighbors,” he said. “We just want to let the legislature know we’d like to continue to produce oil and gas.”

Bernero’s fear of Senate Bill 181 is shared by Republican lawmakers like Rep. Larry Liston, who represents Colorado Springs. He stopped by the oil and gas industry event to get a sticker that says “I’m Colorado Oil and Gas.”

“At some point in time, if the heavy hand of government comes down so hard or makes it hard enough for the industry to do their business, they have other options,” he said.  “There’s other states that have oil and gas and the companies have finite budgets.”

Two floors above Liston, a long line formed outside of the room where the House Energy and Environment Committee was about to weigh in on the bill.

Rodger Steen arrived an hour before the meeting started. He drove more than 150 miles from Routt County to support the oil and gas regulations. He’s been weighing in on the issue now for more than eight years.

“The counties do have minimal control over some of the surface issues, but they really can’t get into the difficult ones like noise control, odor control, air pollution,” he said as he outlined why he thinks local governments need more power. “It’s important because the citizens deserve to have a lifestyle that provides clean air. Clean water. Reasonably healthy environment, and reasonably little impact on the wildlife.

He said that’s especially important in Western Colorado, where hunting and hiking are a big tourism draw.

The debate over oil and gas regulations is emotional for some. Erin Martinez and her son survived a home explosion in Firestone in 2017. But her husband and brother were killed by the blast, which was blamed on a leaking flow line from a nearby well.

Martinez was the first to testify at Monday’s hearing. She grew emotional describing what it was like for her son to see her in the hospital.

“I can’t imagine how horrifying that was,” she said. “I had collapsed lungs. So I was on a ventilator. I had a feeding tube … and I was wrapped head to toe in garments and stuff because I had burns on over 40 percent of my body.”

Martinez is a strong supporter of Senate Bill 181. She said the regulations will prevent future explosions.

But opponents of the regulations, like Rep. Liston of Colorado Springs, are defending the energy industry in the aftermath of the Firestone explosion.

“I don’t think it was anything the industry was conspiring or they were being laissez-faire, or didn’t care. They did,” Liston said.

Liston questioned why lawmakers are focusing on the energy industry for tighter regulations.

“I think to take a bill like this and make significant demands on the industry for pretty isolated incidents … we have industry in the construction industry or the automotive industry or the ski industry — look how many people get killed skiing, and we don’t shut down the ski industry, we don’t put heavy regulations on the ski industry,” Liston said.

Liston’s Republican colleagues in the Senate did everything they could last week to try and stall the debate over the oil and gas bill. They even requested an unrelated 2,000-page bill be read at length on the Senate floor last week.

Protests against the bill have brought so many people to the Capitol, the building’s free WiFi appeared to have been overloaded earlier this month.

But Democrats are using their majority in both chambers to advance the debate. And after 12 hours of additional testimony on Monday, Democrats who control the House Energy and Environment committee advanced the bill even further.

The bill has two more committee hearings to clear before it heads to the House Floor for a final series of debates.

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

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