The Gazette: Debate continues to rage over fracking, energy regulations

May 3, 2012
In The News


The state Capitol was jam-packed with oil and gas policy discussion on Wednesday, including a pair of legislative bills and a lengthy Congressional hearing led by Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn. Though the bills and federal rules all are longshots in their own ways, they represent the ongoing federal, state and local battles over fracking and other energy regulations.

Lamborn, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, brought his members to the Colorado Capitol to hear testimony from Western stakeholders on oil and gas regulations. The federal Bureau of Land Management is expected to issue new restrictions on fracking, and Lamborn organized the meeting to delve into different angles on the issue.


Many speakers told the subcommittee that states, and local governments in many cases, need to be able to at least alter federal rules for energy companies, if not create their own. Fresh federal laws for the oil and gas industry could deliver a crushing blow to their economies, said representatives from Wyoming, Utah, and local Colorado governments.

"New regulations could possibly sound the death knell for energy development in the Rocky Mountains," said Chris Rockers, the chief financial officer of Magna Energy Services.

Dr. Lisa McKenzie, from the University of Colorado’s School of Public Health, warned the subcommittee that she had found evidence that proximity to drilling rigs increases the risk of cancer, respiratory diseases and other illnesses.

The meeting was a study session; the subcommittee didn’t take action.

"What I take away from this is that state regulations should take precedence over federal regulations," said Lamborn. "It pretty much affirmed what I thought when we were coming here anyway."

Lamborn said he’s waiting to see what the federal BLM decides to do before he makes any move.

Local control also was at the center of a controversial Republican bill aimed at freeing oil and gas companies from city and county restrictions. At mid-day, legislators on the House Agriculture Committee argued for the second time this week over a bill that would rescind severance tax income to local governments if they issue new regulations that hinder oil and gas companies.

Though Capitol-watchers expect the bill to die quickly if it even reaches the floor of the House, it raised the hackles of several legislators who said it undercut local governments’ sovereignty. It also split the Republican caucus.

"I believe in local control, and this slaps local control in the face," said Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, a member of the committee.

The committee didn’t vote on the bill Wednesday.

In the afternoon, a Senate Committee spent more than four hours debating a bill to place further restrictions on oil and gas drilling. Though the measure was amended to give the state more leeway in implementing the proposed regulations, it was too much for industry representatives and Senate Republicans to swallow.

The bill - which will almost certainly be killed in the Republican-controlled House - includes a variety of crackdowns, including a requirement that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission expand the minimum distance between drilling operations and communities. Currently, the minimum is 350 feet, and the bill would require an increase.

It would also establish tighter safety rules surrounding Superfund sites, water quality testing, leak detection, explosives near drilling rigs, radiation and open toxic waste pits.

"These issues are real," Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, told the six other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

More than a dozen Colorado residents testified in support of the bill, saying that the health risks of drilling rigs are too dangerous to not be further regulated. Many said they feared water supplies would be contaminated, and others said toxic chemicals are used too close to homes and schools.

"Lack of regulation will kill this state," said one of the bill’s proponents.

But representatives from the oil and gas industry said there is plenty of oversight, and argued that the state should be wary of driving energy companies away. And the committee’s Republicans reminded witnesses that the Legislature enacted new regulations for oil and gas companies just three years ago.

"The idea I want to push back against is this idea that it’s Armageddon," said Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango. "The perception I keep hearing over and over again is that we’ve done nothing. And it’s just not true."

The bill passed on a 4-3 party line vote, and is headed to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will hold a joint legislative and oversight field hearing at 9 a.m. Thursday in Colorado Springs to discuss several federal issues. The event at the Pikes Peak Regional Building office, 2880 International Circle, is open to the public.

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