Oil and gas regs could be the next battlefield in Colorado

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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Republicans and rural Coloradans still stinging from this year’s Democratic-dominated legislative session might want to brace for more of the same when the state legislature reconvenes in January.

Democrats plan to come back with a slate of bills to tighten the screws on the state’s oil and gas industry, reviving several measures to increase fines and redefine the role of the state oversight agency that failed to pass this year.

House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst promised to revive several of the measures during a natural gas symposium last week.

Though the bills are still to be decided, she said it was a near certainty that a bill raising fines will be reintroduced.

“[W]e’ll see this bill I’m pretty sure again because this is one we really do need to move forward on,” she is quoted as saying in the Colorado Observer. “Our fines are too low in Colorado right now.”

Energy policy in Colorado has the potential to be as divisive and messy as gun control legislation has been in recent months. Environmental groups like Conservation Colorado are encouraging Democrats to bring back bills to require more inspections, raise fines for spills, increase set-backs around drilling sites and limit the industry’s influence.

“While seeing these bills die this session is disappointing, it is not the last word on this subject,” a legislative wrap-up report by Conservation Colorado said.

Tighter regulations on energy businesses are at the top of the list of reasons several Colorado counties are threatening to secede in an attempt to form the country’s 51st state. At meetings throughout the summer, proponents of “North Colorado” pointed to new renewable energy requirements for rural electric cooperatives as evidence that urban politicians are out of touch with rural constituents.

Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway warned attendees at a meeting in June that Democrats weren’t done with trying to pass tough new rules for oil and gas companies.

“The very things that are leading to economic prosperity, most of which are coming out of right here, they want to go after,” he said, noting that eight of the 10 counties looking to secede are in the top 10 oil and gas producing counties in Colorado.

“When you talk about our very way of life being under assault,” he said, “it’s the constant drumbeat of rules and regulations from the state legislature and frankly, they’re not hearing us out here.”

While many consider the secession movement to be doomed to failure, at least some Democrats are considering the idea that they overreached during the last session and might end up paying the price in November 2014.

“There are enough people that feel that their views and their opinions aren’t being considered that I think that’s a serious problem and I take it very seriously,” Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper said on 850 KOA radio in August. “And you have my commitment that I will, you know, work especially hard this next session to try and make sure that we have a more balanced approach to all Colorado.”

Unlike with guns, Hickenlooper tends to be more in alignment with rural voters on energy issues than his Democratic colleagues. He has long argued that local governments cannot create regulations that are more strict than those imposed by the state (yet four communities have ballot issues dealing with fracking bans this election) and he has defended fracking to the point of absurdity, claiming during a congressional committee to have drunk fracking fluid.

Hickenlooper’s opposition to some of the bills introduced during the last session is often cited as the reason they didn’t pass.

But Hullinghorst said Democrats are working more closely with the governor’s office in crafting legislation for the next session.

At least one politician sees Colorado as already having reached the tipping point.

“Shell pulled out of Colorado just within the last 60 days,” gubernatorial candidate Greg Brophy, a Republican state senator, told the Observer. “They didn’t pull out of oil shale — they’re still working on it in two other locations — but they’re no longer working on it in Colorado.”

“That to me is an example of reaching the tipping point where it’s more attractive to be somewhere else.”

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