As Colorado Lawmakers Debate New Oil And Gas Law, Stories Of Loss And Anxiety Emerge

<p>David Zalubowski/AP</p>
<p>A pump jack works in a recently constructed residential development in Frederick, Colo., Aug. 16, 2018.</p>
Photo: Oil And Gas Drilling Near Homes | Pump Jack In Frederick - AP
A pump jack works in a recently constructed residential development in Frederick, Colo., Aug. 16, 2018.

Colorado's long-running battle over oil and gas drilling in suburban neighborhoods has erupted again, and this time the stakes are deeply personal.

As state lawmakers debate whether to clamp stronger health and safety regulations on the industry, stories of loss and anxiety are emerging on both sides.

"Nobody should ever have to experience what my family has had to go through in this past almost two years," said Erin Martinez, whose husband and brother were killed in a 2017 house explosion linked to a well near the Martinezes' home.

She supports tighter rules, including one that would require a public map of pipelines like the one that bled odorless, unrefined natural gas into her basement.

But oilfield workers worry the sweeping new rules will strangle the industry and shut down one of the few remaining careers that offer a good living to people with or without a college education.

"All you have to do is work hard, have a good attitude, be safe, do the right thing, and you really can make whatever you want out of that chance and opportunity," said Erik Finder, who has worked in the North Dakota and Colorado oilfields for six years.

"What's the alternative for all these guys that would lose their jobs?" he said.

Colorado ranks fifth in the nation for crude oil production and sixth for natural gas. It has struggled for years to balance its booming energy industry and its fast-growing communities, some that spill onto the rich Wattenberg oil and gas field north of Denver.

In November, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have kept new wells 2,500 feet from homes and schools, up from the current 500 feet. But they also handed control of the Legislature and the governorship to Democrats.

Democrats are now pushing a bill that would fundamentally shift the role of oil and gas regulators from promoting production to protecting public safety and the environment.

It would also give local governments new authority to restrict locations for drilling rigs, which could put some areas off-limits.

Democratic leaders say the existing rules haven't kept pace with drilling technology or Colorado's expanding population, and they need to be updated.

Their bill passed the Senate two weeks ago and is expected to clear the House as early as Friday. Gov. Jared Polis supports it.

Oilfield workers and other industry supporters say they were shut out of the process and are being unfairly depicted as reckless villains.

"We're not just a bunch of guys that are missing all our teeth, that want to go out and party and raise hell all day and night," Finder told The Associated Press.

"I want Colorado to be a wonderful, safe place for families to come and ski and climb and hike and go to Rocky Mountain National Park," he said. "I don't want (drillers) to just punch holes and run wild and do whatever they want."

Ethan Lutz, who manages a fracking crew for Liberty Oilfield Services, said the industry has become cleaner, quieter and safer in his 10-year career.

"It can be frustrating that a lot of people don't have a complete understanding of what goes into, quote-unquote, the oilfield," said Lutz, who has a bachelor's degree from Western Colorado University.

"I'm proud of what I do," he said. "We take it seriously. We do it responsibly."

Photo: Erin Martinez Firestone 1 HV 20190304
Erin Martinez at the state Capitol Monday March 4, 2019.

Martinez, who was critically injured by the explosion that killed her husband and brother, said she's not out to destroy the industry and believes it can thrive with tougher rules. She and her family reached a legal settlement with Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum last year after investigators determined the blast was caused by natural gas from a pipeline that was severed about 10 feet from the house. The line was believed to be abandoned but was still connected to an operating Anadarko well with the valve turned to the open position, investigators said.

"Lots of good people depend on the industry for their livelihood," Martinez said in February as Democrats announced the bill. "However, with great tragedies should also come great change. Human life should come first."

Colorado already has some of the strictest regulations in the nation, said Kevin Book of ClearView Energy Partners, an independent research firm.

Other states sometimes follow Colorado's lead on new rules, but that's unlikely this time, especially on giving more authority to local governments, Book said.

One reason is that the industry has fewer champions in the Colorado Legislature than in other energy-producing states because the vast majority of new production is concentrated in just a handful of lawmakers' districts, he said.

Colorado also has a more diverse economy than other states that produce comparable amounts of energy, so the industry contributes a smaller share of its gross domestic product and total jobs, Book said.

Predicting the economic impact of the proposed new rules is difficult because the legislation isn't final, said Bernadette Johnson, vice president for market intelligence for Drillinginfo Inc., which provides data and analysis to the oil and gas industry.

Industry-friendly Weld County, in the heart of the Wattenberg field, isn't likely to impose new restrictions, she said. But local governments closer to the cities of Denver and Boulder could raise more barriers.

"So what it would mean would depend on where you are," she said.