Did legislature drill deep enough for solutions?

by Frank Smith, WCC Director of Organizing

When it comes to oil & gas, the Colorado legislature sure was busy from January to May.  Over the past few months, there have been efforts to study health impacts, review severance taxes, increase fines, and grant pipelines access over private land.

Updating COGCC Penalties

House Bill (HB)1356 worked its way through both chambers and is awaiting the Governor’s signature!  Industry will soon face higher fines when found to be out of compliance from Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) rules. This common-sense measure updates the current financial penalty system created in the 1950’s and removes loopholes afforded to companies.  During WCC’s Spring trip to the Capitol in Denver, we met with bill sponsor Rep. Mike Foote (D-Lafayette) and told him Western Coloradans supported HB 1356.

Addressing Health Concerns

HB 1297, a bill to study health impacts of oil & gas, was postponed indefinitely.  The bill, along with its $600,000 price tag, would have focused on four Front Range Counties (Adams, Weld, Boulder and Larimer) to review possible public health concerns associated with industrial activities like drilling and fracking.

During their April trip to the Capitol, WCC members listened to the House Transportation and Energy Committee debate the bill, spoke to the bill sponsor, and talked about local experiences with health studies.  As of late April, however, HB 1297 died.  Oddly, there was not enough money or political support to study one of the most critical questions of our time. We applaud Rep. Joann Ginal’s (D- Larimer) efforts to pass meaningful legislation and hope to see an even better bill next year.

Angling for Eminent Domain

Senate Bill (SB) 93 would have given oil pipeline companies eminent domain authority over private property.  Traditionally, eminent domain is a power wielded by the government to take private property for public use or in the interest of public safety.

Although the Colorado Supreme Court ruled against such frightening corporate power in 2012, oil companies still want to put down pipelines without permission.  The oil industry wants its pipelines to be treated like phone lines or other public utilities, but with a fundamental difference — its pipes would be carrying privately-owned commodities and/or hazardous materials.

Further, landowners would have less chance at receiving fair market value if oil companies were not motivated to negotiate. Interestingly, SB 93 and its myriad associated issues had ardent supporters.  Thankfully, it died but only after folks from all walks of life across the state raised their voice!

Fixing Tax Loopholes

SB 198 didn’t last long, but we hope the idea persists: Consider updating Colorado taxes on oil & gas companies.  Our state has a severance tax system that requires payment for the amount of hydrocarbon produced within our borders.

The tax moneys provide critical funding for local communities, both near and far from producing regions.  But companies make millions (or billions) of dollars annually and they depend on public infrastructure and services.  So let’s close tax loopholes for oil & gas next year.

Keeping the Bar Low

Early in the session, there was also HB 1064, an unsuccessful measure introduced to punish local governments that regulated oil & gas beyond state minimum standards through reduction in severance tax revenues.
HB 1064’s targets, really, were local initiatives along Colorado’s Front Range, where places like Broomfield and Longmont are seeking bans on fracking, moratoria or greater pipeline rules.

Requiring Disclosure of Split Estate

SB 9 came from a Commerce City lawmaker to encourage additional disclosure to prospective homebuyers when the underlying minerals have separate owners from the surface land (split estate). We liked the idea, but saw it was a voluntary measure which could have done more to protect consumers and communities.

Protecting Floodplains

Lastly, in the wake of the tragic and epic floods last Fall in Northern Colorado, there has been much legislative action.  But none related to oil & gas.  Last September, national audiences saw flooded wellpads and leaky equipment pouring chemicals into rivers.

Initially, there was talk of bills to get fracking out of floodplains; instead, the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission came out with a study.  The March 2014 report estimates we have nearly 6,000 wells within 500 feet of a waterway, but stops short of saying it wants a new law protecting floodplains and communities.

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