Commentary

Oil and gas interests are trying to subvert a landmark law

Regulators are being asked to make SB-181 do the opposite of its intent

August 28, 2020 9:08 am

The Denver Energy Center, in Denver at 1625 and 1675 Broadway, is the home of Noble Energy, and adjacent to it is Republic Plaza, home of Extraction Oil & Gas, seen on June 18, 2020. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Colorado lawmakers in 2019 enacted several pieces of landmark environmental legislation, including a bill meant to provide new protections against the harmful effects of oil and gas extraction.

But some industry interests, along with accomplices in several local governments, are attempting to distort the intent of the bill by lobbying regulators for less local restrictions on drilling operations. They have concocted twisted interpretations of the law, reading into its language an intent that is the opposite of the bill’s purpose. This effort to subvert a groundbreaking environmental law comes at a time when all Coloradans can feel directly, in the form of wildfire smoke, the consequences of environmental neglect, and it must be rejected.

Oil and gas development in Colorado for decades had been governed by a core set of laws adopted in the 1950s, when the Front Range was more sparsely populated and fossil fuel extraction had yet to be dominated by hydraulic fracturing techniques, which in recent years have led to an explosion of drilling activity as well as an increase in related and scientifically-documented risks to human health. Senate Bill 19-181 sought to update parts of Colorado oil and gas law in response to these new circumstances. It fundamentally altered the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the fossil fuel industry. State law previously directed the commission to “foster” oil and gas development. Under SB-181 it must now “regulate” oil and gas operations “in a manner that protects public health, safety, and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources.”

Regulate. Protect public health. Protect the environment. This is what the law wants, and it states so in plain language.

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The new law also confers to local governments something many of them with a preference for environmental protection had tried to claim for years — more of their own control over oil and gas. The law says cities and counties can regulate where drilling activities are allowed to occur and their health and environmental impacts. It even specifies that “a local government’s regulations may be more protective or stricter than state requirements.”

What it does not say is that a local government’s regulations may be less strict than the state’s. But that is exactly what some pro-industry advocates are trying to argue.

State regulators in recent months have been updating Colorado’s oil and gas rules according to SB-181, and this week new members of the COGCC began “mission change” updates, which involve rules related to the switch in the commission’s mission from fostering oil and gas development to regulating it to protect public health. Industry representatives had long opposed local regulations, because they wanted to preclude Front Range cities and counties from limiting their operations beyond state restrictions.

But suddenly they’re fans of local control, because they found allies in certain local governments that seek to weaken state authority — Weld County, where 90% of the state’s oil production occurs, and other industry-friendly jurisdictions, are lobbying commissioners to allow cities and counties to enact regulations that are less restrictive than the state’s and for those permissive rules to take precedence. 

“It is undisputed that one of the main reasons the General Assembly enacted Senate Bill 19-181 … last year was to empower local governments with the authority to take the lead,” a statement to the commissioners from industry group Colorado Oil and Gas Association said, according to The Colorado Sun.

The notion that the new law is intended to empower local governments to loosen rules for oil and gas development isn’t just cynical, it’s factually wrong. Just ask the bill sponsors.

SB19-181 makes it crystal clear that while both the COGCC and local governments have the authority to regulate surface oil and gas operations, local government regulations can only be stricter, or more protective, than state regulations,” said the bill’s sponsors, including House Speaker KC Becker, in a joint statement on Monday. Local governments have the authority only to enact restrictions above a statewide “floor,” the statement asserts.

There is an ethical component to this discussion. Colorado is experiencing one of its worst wildfire seasons on record, and climate change is partly to blame. The state is two decades into a drought so transformational that many scientists believe the word “drought” fails to describe the irreversible, warming-related factors at work. On Wednesday, Boulder County Public Health Department issued an advisory that noted “extraordinarily high levels of ground-level ozone” in the county. One of the causes of this extreme pollution was “emissions from oil and gas production.”

Coloradans can see and feel everywhere the dangerous results of human-caused changes in the environment. SB-181 was intended to offer protections, but oil and gas industry representatives and their friends in local government would rather prioritize revenues over human health.

State regulators must not make the same mistake. 

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