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Increased fine amounts for oil and gas spills pass, but local-control talks collapse

May 6, 2014, 11:25 am
Garden Gulch spill

The Garden Gulch spill on Colorado’s Western Slope in 2008.

A bill to dramatically increase fine amounts for oil and gas spills passed both houses of the Colorado State Legislature recently, but as the session winds down on Wednesday, it may be more noteworthy for the energy bill that didn’t pass. In fact, it was never introduced.

State legislators on Monday failed to craft a compromise bill that could have led to greater regulatory control over oil and gas drilling by Colorado’s county and municipal governments.  A so-called “local control” bill might have headed off a slew of ballot initiatives aimed at letting voters decide if state regulators should be forced to give up some of their authority over drilling.

Business leaders are dubbing the ballot initiatives a statewide fracking ban, but U.S. Rep. Jared Polis on Monday said he won’t back down on pushing an agenda that could lead to greater local control over the controversial hydraulic fracturing process.

“My constituents and all Coloradans simply want the freedom to live their version of the Colorado dream without interference,” Polis said in a press release. “Unfortunately, the current law takes away our ability to choose what is best for our communities and families by forcing fracking to happen anywhere, anytime.

“The people of Colorado are demanding a reasonable balance between energy development and their quality of life. I will not stop fighting for a solution that does just that.”

A recent Politico story headlined “How fracking could break Colorado Democrats” airs their concerns that such measures will attract a flood of industry and Republican campaign dollars that could help defeat Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall in November.

Hickenlooper has been a strong proponent of the current system of state control over oil and gas drilling, suing municipalities that last November passed bans on hydraulic fracturing, which is a drilling process that injects water, sand and chemicals deep underground to fracture tight rock and sand formations to free up more oil and gas.

“This is a complex issue that involves many different stakeholders,” Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown told Real Aspen Monday. “The governor has insisted on broad engagement done in a bipartisan way. We know now that there is not enough time left in the legislative session to reach a compromise about issues related to local control. We have been working hard on this issue – including many hours over this past weekend – and will continue working hard on this issue.”

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group, was not directly involved in negotiations but encouraged its stakeholders to participate in the process.

“At the end of the day, a bill such as this needed to be bi-partisan, with broad industry and stakeholder support,” COGA spokesman Doug Flanders told Real Aspen. “Bills or ballot measures that change how oil and gas is governed will have dramatic impacts to every sector of the economy. This is why we are seeing business groups coming together to fight against these kinds of ballot measures.”

State Reps. Su Ryden, D-Aurora, and Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, were spearheading the 11th-hour negotiations for a local-control bill, which included representatives of the Hickenlooper administration. Ryden and Hullinghorst on Monday issued a joint statement that reads in part:

“Those discussions focused on harmonizing local and state authority in regards to energy production. It is of critical importance to people across this state to balance local communities’ ability to act to protect the health, safety and welfare of Colorado families while also creating a consistent and predictable regulatory framework that allows for responsible energy development.

“Our conversations have been productive, but we haven’t yet struck an accord with all of the stakeholders, and we’ve run out of time in this session to pass consensus legislation.”

Campaign representatives for both Udall and his Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, did not respond to email requests for comment.

In other oil and gas news, the Colorado Senate on April 30 passed a bill that will increase fines for oil and gas spills for the first time since 1955. Already approved by the House, the legislation will increase fines from the current level of $1,000 per day to $15,000 per day, per violation.

“Oil and gas companies should take responsibility for their actions, just like the rest of us do, and be held accountable with commonsense rules that ensure their operations are safe,” Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, said in a press release.  “Increased fines provide an incentive to follow rules, not spill, and fix problems right away.”Jones sponsored the bill, which has the backing of the COGA as well as leading environmental groups.

Under the bill, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state’s chief oil and gas regulatory agency, will be able to revoke drilling permits or prohibit new ones in cases of gross negligence or willful misconduct.

Also, fine information must be posted on the commission’s website every quarter so people can be more aware of environmental health impacts in their communities.

The Senate passed HB 14-1356 on a bipartisan 20-15 vote, and the bill now heads to Hickenlooper’s desk.

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David O. Williams is an award-winning energy, environment, sports and outdoor writer based in the Vail Valley. His work has appeared in publications as diverse as the The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, SKI, SKIING, Powder, People, LA Weekly and the Huffington Post.

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