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Democrats unsure where Hickenlooper stands on oil and gas oversight bills

DENVER — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper told FOX31 Denver that he plans to sign some but possibly not all of the Democratic legislation aimed at increasing oversight of oil and gas development in the state.

Hickenlooper, a former geologist who many Democrats think is too cozy with the oil and gas industry, believes his administration is finding a suitable balance in the ongoing battle between energy companies and environmentalists.

“Most of the oil and gas companies are pretty unhappy with me as well,” Hickenlooper said in a interview Monday. “We’ve sort of found that sweet spot to make everyone a little bit angry.”

But Democrats, who control both legislative chambers at the Capitol, have introduced a wide range of proposals aimed at regulating the industry — and they’re not convinced that Hickenlooper isn’t working against them.

“My sense is we’re definitely facing a headwind,” said Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, the sponsor of several oil and gas regulation bills. “Obviously, a lot of that is coming from the industry. But it’s hard to tell if the administration is also part of it.”

Foote points to an amendment he proposed during the long debate over the state budget to provide an additional eight state oil and gas well inspectors.

“Right now we have 16 inspectors to cover about 52,000 wells,” Foote told FOX31 Denver. “What we were trying to do is give them more people to do their job better. So that was surprising. It was kind of a ‘thanks, but no thanks.’

“I’ve never heard of a government agency turning down the prospect of having more people, but it did happen in this case.”

After Foote’s amendment was adopted in the House, a conference committee working through changes to the budget scaled it back so that, in the end, four additional inspectors were added.

Hickenlooper told FOX31 Denver he plans to sign House Bill 1267, which will increase Colorado’s fines on oil and gas companies for spills and other environmental mishaps, currently among the lowest in the country.

“We’ve said from the beginning that we’re going to increase fines because we want to hold the industry accountable,” Hickenlooper said.

The legislation would remove a $10,000 total cap on fines; the industry is still pushing to put a new, somewhat higher cap in place and to lower Foote’s proposed maximum daily fine of $15,000 a day.

But Hickenlooper is hinting that he may veto Foote’s other bill, House Bill 1269, even though it’s been softened significantly.

The legislation first sought to remove the three representatives of the oil and gas industry from serving on the nine-member Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is charged with supporting the industry and protecting the state’s natural resources.

It’s since been amended so that the industry’s representatives can still serve on the COGCC as long as they disclose any financial interests; but the bill also seeks to change the mission of the panel so that protecting the state’s land, air and water is prioritized above supporting energy development — the part of the bill that vexes Hickenlooper.

“We’re still working on trying to improve it and get to a place where we can support it,” the governor said. “If we’re going to get to a place where you’re going to try and change the mission of one of the major regulatory bodies in the state, you probably want to have a longer, more robust, far-reaching process to get people’s input and make sure you hear all the different constituencies.”

When asked if he or his administration has publicly opposed or lobbied against any of the Democratic oil and gas bills, Hickenlooper didn’t issue a flat denial.

“What we’ve tried to do is make each bill better,” he said.