Polis lays out policy changes for oil and gas industry

Alex Zorn
Glenwood Springs Post Independent

Firestone home explosion survivor Erin Martinez urges Colorado lawmakers to put human safety first when it comes to the natural gas industry.
Jesse Aaron Paul / Colorado Sun

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, along with state Senate and House Democratic leadership, proposed new policy for the state’s oil and natural gas industry Thursday, giving more authority to local governments and clarifying the role of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

While Polis’ position doesn’t come as much of a surprise to conservationists and industry leaders throughout the state, the announcement at the state Capitol provided a clear look into what regulation changes he’d like to see for the energy industry during his time as governor.

Among those who stood with Polis on Thursday was Erin Martinez, one of the survivors of the 2017 Firestone home explosion, who advocated to put Colorado residents’ health and safety first.

“My home and family were destroyed because my house was next to a leaky flowline that had been connected to the well,” she explained. On the day of the explosion, Martinez remembers being trapped by falling debris. Her son had “to crawl on his hands and knees through a tunnel to a window” in order to get out.

Martinez’s husband, Mark Martinez, and another man, Joey Irwin, were killed in the explosion.

“I have no desire to destroy an industry,” she said. “Lots of good people depend on this industry for their livelihood … however, with great tragedy should come great change.”

The new legislation is expected to be formally introduced over the next few days and will address several concerns the governor had regarding the role of the COGCC and local governments in bringing oil and gas operations into communities across the state.

Polis said he intends to put health and safety first, following up on his pledge throughout last year’s election campaign by saying he was fulfilling that promise.

“As it stands today, the conflict between oil and gas drilling operations and the neighborhoods impacted simply cannot be ignored any longer,” the governor said Thursday. “In a state as diverse as ours … there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to implementing oil and gas development into different communities. Yet, under current law, communities are hamstrung in creating rules that work for their local residents.”

The full press conference can be found on Polis’ Facebook page.

He said the new legislation will provide clear language that local governments have land-use authority, just as they do with other areas of economic activity. The bill also clarifies that local governments will have the authority to regulate oil and gas operations, including land-use and surface impacts.

It further provides legal parameters around local authority and guidance for local and state governments, particularly the COGCC, Polis said. It also states the COGCC will have at least one commissioner with public health expertise.

“It clarifies the mission of the COGCC is to regulate oil and gas operations rather than to foster,” Polis explained.

Many throughout the state, including several local voices, praised what the governor had to say about the COGCC and local control.

“As a resident of Battlement Mesa, I have come to understand that the COGCC usually behaves as a partner with the oil and gas industry rather than an advocate for protecting the health and safety of Colorado citizens,” said Western Colorado Alliance member Dave Devanney, who lives in the western Garfield County community that’s been one of the focal points for energy development and its proximity to residences.

“Their mission to ‘foster’ oil and gas development leaves citizens at serious risks with little or no recourse when major industrial operations move into our communities,” Devanney said.

Devanney joined with other conservation groups throughout the state in hoping Polis’ policy goals become law.

“We must reform Colorado’s broken oil and gas system so that our health, safety and environment are not a question but a top priority for state regulators,” Conservation Colorado Executive Director Kelly Nordini said in a statement.

Those with ties to the natural gas industry were critical of Polis’ views.

A coalition of Colorado businesses and groups, including the Rifle Area Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter to Polis prior to the legislation announcement concerned with the changes to the oil and natural gas regulatory framework.

The letter says that any improvements to the state’s regulatory framework should consider the defeat of Proposition 112 in November, a bill “that would have driven oil and natural gas development out of Colorado,” the coalition letter states.

The failed proposition would have greatly increased the required setback between oil and gas facilities and homes and other occupied buildings. “Efforts to push that type of agenda through the Legislature, similarly, should be rejected in a strong, bipartisan manner,” it reads.

The letter also asked that scientific facts drive the debate on regulation.

“Activist groups have made a series of demonstrably false claims concerning health, safety and the environment,” the letter adds.

It asked the governor to support working families in the state, saying energy development contributes $31 billion to the economy and supports the livelihoods of more than 230,000 men, women and families across Colorado.

Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, a strong supporter of the oil and gas industry in Garfield County, said he was comfortable with the existing rules and regulations in place, and added that Garfield County defers to the COGCC on all natural gas matters, including drilling locations. That has “worked well,” Jankovsky said.

Colorado Petroleum Council Executive Director Tracee Bentley said she felt the stakeholder process was being shortchanged.

“In my over 15 years of working with the Colorado state government, not having a thorough stakeholder process is unprecedented, especially for a bill that targets one industry but impacts every Coloradan,” Bentley said in a prepared statement. “We are deeply disappointed that House and Senate leadership do not appear to value the stakeholder process nor the importance of having all stakeholders at the table on one of the most consequential proposals in Colorado history.”