Bill seeks to curb local drilling regulations

Brown unlikely to vote for measure, says moratoriums sometimes helpful

DENVER –A Republican bill to punish cities and counties that get in the way of natural-gas and oil drilling appears to be dead before it even got off the ground.

Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, introduced House Bill 1356 Friday afternoon and scheduled a hearing for it Monday in the House Agriculture Committee, where he is chairman.

The bill would withhold payments of severance taxes to any city or county that “in any way restricts or delays” energy production.

“If you put a moratorium on oil and gas and say, ‘Look, we don’t want you here,’ then you don’t get the oil and gas revenue,” Sonnenberg said.

As Monday’s hearing began, Sonnenberg said he intended to greatly narrow the scope of the bill, so that it would cover only moratoriums on drilling. Boulder County, the city of Longmont and a few other Front Range jurisdictions currently have temporary drilling bans.

The committee delayed a vote until Wednesday to give Sonnenberg a chance to craft new language for his bill.

But even the narrower version of the bill appears set to fail.

Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, questioned Sonnenberg sharply during the hearing. Her home county, El Paso, is getting ready for a possible boom in drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, said he does not think he will support even the amended bill, because sometimes a moratorium can be a useful tool for counties.

“There were times as a county commissioner that we needed a little extra time, and I can understand that,” Brown said.

Democrats also oppose the bill.

Severance taxes bring sizeable cash payments into area governments. In 2011, La Plata County got more than $1 million, Durango got $282,000 and Montezuma County got $278,000.

Local government groups fought the bill.

“This is very, very unsavory public policy being proposed here,” said Kevin Bommer, a lobbyist for the Colorado Municipal League.

The debate about local governments’ authority about drilling has tied up the Legislature all year.

Republicans and Democrats managed to kill each other’s bills on the topic earlier this year. Last month, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s task force on the issue submitted a report that recommended no substantive changes.

Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, told the Herald he thought Hickenlooper has punted on the issue. As leader of the House, McNulty had to give Sonnenberg permission to introduce a bill so late in the year.

The legislative session ends May 9.

jhanel@durangoherald.com