Western Wire

Two leading Democratic lawmakers told representatives from the oil and gas industry that the newly-enacted overhaul of Colorado’s oil and gas regulations will mean more stability and remove the need for state ballot measures in the coming years during a legislative reception Tuesday. Their Republican colleagues cautioned the conflicts are now shifted to local officials.

Remarks made by House Majority Leader Alec Garnett and Senator Rachel Zenzinger during the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s (COGA) annual end-of-session panel echoed those of Gov. Jared Polis who, after signing SB 181 last month, declared that “it is our hope that the oil and gas wars that have enveloped our state are over.”

Garnett expressed confidence that the legislation will increase industry and political certainty, calling it “the most significant step in the oil and gas wars in the last ten years.”

Garnett added that the upcoming rulemaking process, as mandated by SB 181, is preferable to a pattern of ill-advised ballot measures appearing each cycle.

“[SB 181] sets us on a path, a wait-and-see path, that I believe will buy time to avoid an expensive, not well-drafted, broad ballot measures that are being brought forward because members of the general public don’t feel like the General Assembly is taking action,” he said.

Likewise, Zenzinger said that SB-181 was comprehensive in scope, lessening the need for further legislative action in the near term. Instead, she said the focus will now turn to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) who will take up the extensive rulemaking process, which could last months or years.

“I think we have to work the rulemaking process first and getting a lay of the land of how those new rules will impact the industry, and you really have to wait and evaluate and reassess,” said Zenzinger. “I think if anything were to come, next session for example, I think is too soon.”

But activists around the state are already looking for the next fight and cities appear poised to harness their newfound local control. As the Denver Post reported this week, the city of Lafayette added an additional six months to its moratorium hours after Polis signed the bill, while the City of Broomfield is discussing temporary bans as well. These actions are a direct result of the passage of SB-181 with cities seeking to delay permits before new rules go into effect.

“I think there were a number of people who felt like the legislature didn’t go far enough. I heard from them, a number of them, so disappointed because their end goal was to ban all fracking,” said Zenzinger. “And because this legislation didn’t do that, they feel like we were a major disappointment,” she added.

The view that anti-oil and gas activists will fight for more aggressive regulations is a perspective that was shared by the two Republicans who participated in the COGA panel.

Representative Hugh McKean stated simply, “I don’t think the wars are over.”

McKean’s colleague, Senator Dennis Hisey, agreed that the fights will turn to local communities and could lead to some confusion while the dust settles.

“The wars may be over, but I think skirmishes are going to begin to happen at every single city council and county commissioner meeting in the affected areas because we’ve told control has shifted to the local folks,” said Hisey.

“So during this rulemaking period, oil and gas isn’t taking a time out. The voters think their city council or their county commissioners have control. So if they see a rig come in and they don’t want it, they’re going to show up en masse in meetings and say ‘stop this, you have the power to do it.’ So I think we have some turmoil in the near-term while all the rulemaking is going on,” Hisey said.

Hisey and Garnett also alluded to the fact that the General Assembly may once again have to weigh in, depending on how localities and the COGCC interpret their new authority.

“I think what we’re going to see is what the rulemaking looks like and to Majority Leader Garnett’s point, you know, if we don’t like what we see, how do we push back? Is the legislature going to say ‘hold on, that’s not exactly where we were heading?’” Hisey asked. “I think that’s going to be a bigger and better conversation we all get to have is if COGCC ends up in place that wasn’t intended, how do we come back to that?”