DENVER – Democrats took aim at the state’s natural-gas and oil regulators Thursday, advancing a bill that would usher in pro-environmental changes to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
House Bill 1269 proposes reforms even beyond what former Gov. Bill Ritter envisioned when he took on the energy industry and remade the commission in 2007. It would forbid commissioners from working for any gas and oil company while they serve on the commission.
It also would redefine a key word – “waste” – in state law in a way that would tilt the scales away from energy production and in favor of environmental protection.
Residents don’t trust the current commission to look out for them, said the sponsor, Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette.
“The oil and gas industry and their allies really don’t like this bill,” said Foote, a former Durango criminal prosecutor. “They have a really good arrangement going right now, and they know it.”
Currently, residents think “the fox is guarding the henhouse” at the COGCC because at least three of the nine commissioners are required to have experience in the energy industry, Foote said. His bill would not change the commission makeup, but it would forbid members of the volunteer commission from working for the industry while they serve on the board.
An official from Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration disagreed with Foote’s criticisms.
“As a practical matter, industry representatives on the commission do not vote in lock-step, and they do not always vote in favor of the industry,” said Bob Randall, deputy director of the Department of Natural Resources.
The department has problems with Foote’s bill, Randall said.
The bill passed the House Transportation and Energy Committee 7-5, with one Democrat and all four Republicans voting no. The full House will hear the bill sometime in the second week of April.
Gas and oil companies are fighting hard against it, especially because of the way it defines the COGCC’s mission.
The “conservation” in Oil and Gas Conservation Commission refers to saving oil and gas, not the environment. The commission’s dual mandate is to minimize the waste of gas and oil while protecting the environment.
Foote’s bill would tip the balance by allowing gas and oil to be left in the ground – wasted – if it is necessary to comply with environmental rules.
Ken Wonstolen, lawyer for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said the choice between environmental protection and wasting minerals is a false one.
“Colorado would be the only oil- and gas-producing state that would say that regulatory waste would be OK,” Wonstolen said.
And Scott Hall, CEO of Black Diamond Minerals, said the commission already is plenty tough on his business.
“That organization will beat me over the head with a 2-by-4 if we step out of line. We are in no way in bed with the COGCC,” Hall said.
The bill is just one of several gas and oil bills that Democrats have introduced this month. They also are advancing bills that would raise the maximum fine on polluting companies, require small spills to be reported to the COGCC, and add dozens of inspectors to the commission’s staff.