Two Democrats joined the Republicans in the Colorado House of Representatives on April 4, 2016, to defeat a bill that sought to assert local government control over oil and gas drilling.
Drilling operations in Colorado have begun moving from rural communities into more populated areas, which has led to an outcry against oil and gas operations in suburban neighborhoods. Aware of the frustration, Governor John Hickenlooper formed a task force in 2015 to propose rules around local governance. The task force was intended to be a compromise that would address the concerns of the public while avoiding a ballot initiative that would give local governments the authority to ban hydraulic fracturing. But for some, the task force did not actually resolve any of the public’s concerns. Democratic Rep. Mike Foote of Lafayette, one of the bill’s sponsors, said, “The current system works very, very well for the industry. It doesn’t work so well, though, if you’re in these neighborhoods, particularly along the Front Range, and you want to have a meaningful say in what happens.” Though supporters of the bill claimed it was just a restatement of authority local governments already have, the bill reinitiated the debate on state-versus-local authority over the energy industry.
In its original form, House Bill 1355 would have given local governments specific authority to regulate the siting of oil and gas facilities, an authority that currently belongs to the state. Realizing such a bill would not likely pass through the full House, the bill was amended to limit local government authority over fracking to noise, lighting, and traffic issues, which is authority that local governments already have.
Even with the amendment, Republicans said the wording opened up the possibility that local governments could attempt to ban drilling under their authority to regulate noise, lighting, and traffic, as stated in the bill. Opponents of the bill also believed that this wasn’t the time for the bill as Colorado’s Supreme Court is currently considering the legality of a 2012 voter-approved fracking ban in Longmont, which will answer the question of whether local governments can enact stricter rules and regulations on drilling than those enacted by the state.
Speaking on this bill and a related bill, which would make energy companies liable for earthquake damage, Governor Hickenlooper signaled that he hoped the Legislature would wait to pass such a bill until the nine recommendations from the task force were fully implemented into law and until the Supreme Court issues a ruling, stating, “I’m not against all legislation. But we’re close to getting a verdict from the Supreme Court . . . Let’s see where we are and make sure this is what people want.”
Industry leaders celebrated the bill’s defeat and believe that such a defeat is a sign that current rules and regulations are working to address the public’s concerns with drilling. “The defeat reaffirms decades-old Colorado law and policy that sets bright lines that recognize the unique aspects of oil and gas location, surface and mineral private property rights, and development,” said Dan Haley, the president and chief executive of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “It also reaffirms the state’s primacy over oil and gas production in Colorado, which was discussed and reaffirmed during the governor’s task force, during the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Committee task force rule-making and in earlier Supreme Court rulings.”
Industry leaders also noted that oil and gas companies are already working with local governments to address concerns and avoid conflict. Currently more than 30 communities in Colorado are parties to private contracts with oil and gas companies, which provide the local communities with a voice in determining how and where the energy industry will be developed in those communities.
Even with the bill dead, the issue of whether local governments will be allowed to regulate or ban fracking remains alive. Backers of Initiative 40, a proposal to give local governments authority to regulate environmental issues, including oil and gas development, won approval to circulate petitions to put the issue before voters in the November 8 general election. The supporters have until August 8 to gather the more than 98,000 signatures they need to put the initiative on the November ballot. And if they do so, it will be up to the voters to decide whether local governments should have the authority to regulate oil and gas drilling or whether that power should remain with the state.