Routt County commissioners support state bill to overhaul oil and gas regulations | SteamboatToday.com

Routt County commissioners support bill to overhaul oil and gas regulations

Former Routt County Road and Bridge Department Director Paul Draper walks past equipment with Brad Benton, a supervisor with GasFrac Energy Services, during a tour of an oil platform on Wolf Mountain in 2011. A proposed state Senate bill would give local government greater authority in regulating the local oil and gas industry. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A new bill is hurtling through the Colorado Senate that would bring sweeping changes to the state’s oil and gas regulations.

SB19-181 would require state regulators to prioritize human health and environmental protection over energy production, which currently holds highest priority. It would also give local governments more authority to control the location of new oil and gas wells within their boundaries. Currently, only the state has the say in such matters.

Democrats released the text of the bill Friday, and the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee held the first hearing on the legislation Tuesday, an unusually quick turnaround. It passed on a 4-3 vote along party lines after almost 12 hours of heated testimony from the public, government officials and industry officials.

Democratic legislators appear to be taking advantage of having a majority in both the state House and Senate to pass more partisan legislation. Newly elected Gov. Jared Polis, a liberal Democrat, also supports the changes outlined in the bill.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the Colorado Petroleum Council released a joint statement urging legislators to take their time in considering the impacts of the bill.

“No good can come out of legislation that is revealed on a Friday night and rushed through the legislative process,” they said in the statement.

But members of the Routt County Board of Commissioners, who have been attempting to regulate local oil and gas development for years, see the proposed changes as long overdue.

Commissioner Doug Monger was on the board of commissioners when it received drilling permit requests from major companies like Shell Oil and Quicksilver Resources in 2011.

In response, Monger and his fellow commissioners imposed tighter restrictions on oil and gas development, such as requiring more water-quality testing and road maintenance from companies who operate wells in the county.

“We drove the car as far as we could drive it regulation-wise,” Monger said, referring to the authority of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission that often supersedes concerns of local government under the current law.

Despite those limitations, the commissioners’ efforts worked to limit the number of wells in the area.

Routt County currently has 36 active oil and gas wells, according to the commission’s website. That is a relatively small number compared to the 25,519 active wells in Weld County, the largest oil and gas producer in the state.

Ironically, that county has become the poster child in the current fight to prioritize public safety over industry interests. In April 2017, a leaking gas line caused an explosion in Firestone, a town within Weld County, that killed two people.

Anadarko, the company that owned the gas line, shut down 3,000 wells in the days after the explosion to check for additional leaks. The incident revealed the lack of oversight and safety measures in place to ensure that oil and gas companies monitor their operations.

Monger sees the proposed bill as a way to balance the public’s needs with those of the industry. It allows local governments to inspect oil and gas operations and impose fines for leaks, spills and emissions.

“You can’t sacrifice the health, safety and welfare of our citizens for getting out that last barrel of oil,” Monger said.

At the same time, he echoed the concerns of those who believe the bill is passing too quickly through the legislative process without considering dissent from Republicans as well as industry representatives.

“It’s like shoving this stuff down their throats,” he said.

The far-reaching bill would decrease the number of industry representatives in the nine-person Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The number of oil and gas representatives would drop from three members to just one. Commissioners with expertise in environmental protection and public health would replace them.

Opponents of the bill claim it would deal a blow to oil and gas companies across the state. More than 30,000 Coloradoans are directly employed by such companies, and those jobs could be jeopardized if drilling operations move to states with less restrictions.

Beth Melton, who joined the Routt County Board of Commissioners in January, said the bill would probably not have a major impact on the local economy because of the lack of oil and gas development here.

She, nonetheless, saw value in allowing the county’s elected officials, like herself, more power to fulfill their duties to the public.

“I think it’s important for us to be able to ensure that the values of our citizens are represented,” she said.

The stark difference between the number of wells in Routt County compared to those in Weld County illustrates how communities across Colorado have already responded differently to oil and gas development.

Commissioner Monger emphasized he is not against companies drilling in Routt County or bringing new wells to the area. He just wants it done right.

“I support drilling. I support oil and gas,” Monger said. “But I support responsible oil and gas.”

Following its success in the Transportation and Energy Committee, the bill now heads to the Senate’s Finance Committee where it will face additional hearings and debate.

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email dmaiolo@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.


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