DENVER (AP) — Democrats who came to Denver this year hoping for a new era of oil and gas oversight have had to settle for partial victories taking on the state's most powerful industry.
The state Senate approved a bill Tuesday to study how gas and oil drilling sites are inspected. The measure aims to give thousands of drilling sites across Colorado more thorough inspections. However, the bill is a far cry from its original form, which mandated annual inspections at drilling sites, which now are checked less than once every three years.
The sponsor of the bill, Democratic Sen. Matt Jones of Louisville, conceded that he'd prefer more inspections. But he called the revised version the best that could be done in the face of intense opposition from the energy lobby.
"We're absolutely far from where we need to be," on regulating oil and gas drilling, Jones said.
The Democrat lauded legislative budget-writers for adding money in next year's budget to increase state drill-site inspectors from 16 to 27. But still, Jones said, the oil and gas industry is hard to confront.
"There are more lobbyists for oil and gas than inspectors in the state," Jones said.
The watered-down inspections bill is just the latest case of Democrats seeing mixed success on bills to exert greater influence over the oil and gas lobby.
The oil and gas industry has traditionally gotten a hands-off approach from the state Legislature. The industry is governed by the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, an appointed agency that includes members who also work for energy producers.
House Democrats proposed a bill to force future oil and gas regulators to give up concurrent jobs at oil and gas companies. That measure was also watered down to add disclosure requirements for commission members but not ban them from working for the industry they're also charged with regulating.
Other attempts to crack down on the industry have been rejected outright. Those include a bill to study the health effects of oil and gas extraction on the Front Range. The measure went down last week after a member of the governor's cabinet, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Chris Urbina, opposed the idea.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has repeatedly said oil and gas drilling has adequate health protections and that local governments, or the Legislature, don't need to meddle in the industry. Lawmakers privately say the governor's office is pushing against efforts to rein in the industry.
Democratic leaders insist they won't give up.
House Democratic Leader Dickie Lee Hullinghorst said voters are demanding more regulation for the energy industry, which because of technological advances can extract oil and gas in more populous areas. Hullinghorst said to expect new bills to enhance water quality regulation and to give local governments more say over how drilling is done.
"People are concerned about their water and their health and the air pollution and everything else," Hullinghorst said. "I think we're seeing a different era, an era of public involvement, a lot more public involvement, on what is happening."
The Colorado Oil & Gas Association says energy producers want to work with the Legislature, but Democrats have in some cases shut the industry out of negotiations on bills to regulate drilling.
"They have not reached out to us, and sometimes the first time we see it, is when there's a bill," said Doug Flanders, COGA's policy director.
Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt
Senate Bill 202: http://bit.ly/11bWyQb