Energy fight headed to Colorado Legislature
DENVER Think the economy will be a top priority for Colorado lawmakers when they return to work next year?Try mixing that with a sweeping proposal affecting the state’s biggest industry oil and gas and the makings are there for a pitched battle over how to balance energy expansion with the environment.At issue is a set of oil and gas regulations adopted this week by a commission set up to propose new rules for protecting the environment while allowing energy development.Oil and gas proponents say the rules go too far and will cost jobs. But they won’t be final until lawmakers sign off on them, setting up a potential legislative feud on whether the time is right for an overhaul of oil and gas regulations.”Right now there is one issue on the minds of the public and their politicians: jobs,” said Sen. Josh Penry, R-Fruita, a vocal opponent to the rules adopted this week.Unlike most revised state regulations, which are approved by the Legislature without much attention, both sides of the oil and gas debate expect a serious clash over these rules. Included in the 170-page proposal: A requirement that gas and oil companies reduce odors near homes; A ban on drilling within 300 feet of rivers and streams; Tougher seasonal rules to protect wildlife during birthing and mating seasons; More oversight from environmental and health officials before new drilling is approved.The committee was directly instructed last year by the Legislature to write greener drilling rules. Still, given the fact that energy is a major job producer for Colorado, industry opposition won’t be taken lightly.”They need to take a hard look at these rules,” especially changes giving state health and environment officials more oversight over drilling, cautioned John Swartout of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association.Energy companies say the rules will drive jobs from Colorado and deter new investment. That’s likely to be a pressing worry for lawmakers next session.”The sour state of the economy makes these rules even more important,” Penry said.The oil and gas industry in Colorado has proved that it can successfully take on politicians who try to paint them as “Big Oil” wrongdoers. Just a few weeks ago, Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter took a major public blow when his proposal to end a severance tax break for oil and gas companies was defeated at the polls.Bob Loevy, a political scientist at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, says that deep-pocket energy interests usually get their way. And when their arguments tap into existing fears about job losses, the call for changing the oil and gas proposal could sway even lawmakers who supported the changes last year.”We would expect the business industry group to win. And above all, if the laboring people who do the actual work on the oil rigs and gas rigs join with them, that can be an irresistible force,” Loevy said.But supporters of the greener drilling rules predict they’ll be able to persuade Colorado lawmakers not to stray from the plan they created.”We ended up with what is a very reasonable, comprehensive and much-needed set of protections for Colorado’s communities, drinking water and wildlife,” said Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.Jones pointed out that lawmakers aren’t technically deciding whether they like the regulations; instead, they will be charged with deciding whether the commission followed the instructions they were given. The answer, Jones said, will be yes.”The real question is whether the rules are following the direction of the Legislature,” she said. “I think they clearly do.”
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