Democrats lament progress on gas, oil bills

Sponsor alters measure to lessen the impact in San Juan Basin

DENVER – House Democrats have accepted partial defeat in their drive to crack down on the natural-gas and oil industry.

They are poised to pass bills that increase fines for pollution and require better reporting of spills, but they weren’t able to add enough inspectors to visit every well at least once a year, and they have not boosted the power of cities and counties to regulate drilling.

“I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t get any further this year, but we’re going to keep working at it,” said House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder.

Democrats butted heads with Gov. John Hickenlooper, a defender of the drillers, for most of the year, and they ended up watering down some of their bills. For example, they added inspectors to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, but nowhere near the 65 employees they originally proposed.

And they will not introduce the bill that would have caused the biggest battle: increasing local control over drilling. Hickenlooper has guarded the state’s ability to be the main regulator of the industry, and he sued the city of Longmont when its voters outlawed hydraulic fracturing inside city limits.

“We pulled back on a bill that would have done something about local government powers relative to oil and gas regulation. We just couldn’t find enough consensus on that. We’re definitely going to work on that over the summertime,” Hullinghorst said.

It’s a rare setback for a Democratic caucus that has been on a winning streak, passing laws to approve civil unions for same-sex couples, give in-state tuition to children who crossed the border illegally with their parents, repeal strict immigration laws and increase gun regulations.

Confrontation over the last gas and oil bill began Thursday afternoon. Hullinghorst wants to increase the number of groundwater samples companies have to take before drilling in the San Juan Basin or in the oil field between Denver and Greeley.

Her House Bill 1316 takes aim at a water-testing rule the COGCC passed in January, and it has drawn opposition from Hickenlooper’s administration. But the rule requires fewer samples in the heavily drilled San Juan and Wattenberg fields.

Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, said legislators should stop second-guessing the COGCC.

The commission held detailed hearings late last year on water sampling.

“And then here we are, when someone didn’t get their way. That has been my concern as I see these bills going through,” Stephens said.

Matt Lepore, director of the COGCC, testified against the bill, and said Southwest Colorado already has had extensive water sampling.

“One of the things we know from the sampling is that oil and gas drilling does not lead to systemic contamination of the groundwater,” Lepore said.

Christi Zeller of the La Plata Energy Council also testified and echoed Lepore’s opposition.

In response, Hullinghorst amended the bill to make it apply only to the Front Range, not Southwest Colorado.

The House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee approved the bill Thursday. If it clears the House and Senate with no changes, it would be on course to a likely veto by the governor.

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