DENVER — Last year, the Boulder County Democrats behind a measure to increase fines on oil and gas companies for spills and other environmental mishaps refused to accept a compromise with Gov. John Hickenlooper, who wanted to remove the part of the bill that would have mandated a minimum daily fine.
After failing to find the votes to restore the mandatory minumum daily fine of $5,000 that was in the original House proposal but removed by the Senate, Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, decided to let the bill die by not bringing it up for a final vote on the last day of the 2013 legislative session.
This year, Foote and the same Boulder County Democrats who stood their ground to the governor are strongly behind a fines bill that looks a lot like what Hickenlooper wanted last year — one with no mandatory minimum fine.
House Bill 1356, which cleared its first committee hearing Wednesday, allows for a maximum fine of $15,000 per violation per day, just as last year’s bill would have done.
The current maximum fine is $1,000 per violation per day.
“Colorado has some of the lowest fines for oil and gas violations in the entire country,” Foote said in a statement. “This bill incentivizes good behavior and holds operators who break the rules accountable.”
But the state can still decide to impose a fine below those maximums — all the way down to no fine at all.
It’s a notable reversal from Foote, given what he said last year — that without minimum fines in his bill, the changes had no teeth.
“The attempt is to hold the worst offenders accountable,” Foote, a former prosecutor, said a year ago. “As someone who’s job has been to impose punishment for the last 10 years, I know that the threat of a maximum fine is meaningless unless the agency has a true intention to impose.”
So what changed?
According to Foote, this year’s bill clarifies that the industry operator is fined every day a violation occurs and removes the existing $10,000 cap on total fines so that oil and gas companies have a real financial incentive to clean up spills and address leaks quickly.
Another source tells FOX31 that neither side had the energy to repeat last year’s politically bruising fight, especially with a major election approaching in November.
Hickenlooper also may have bought himself some good will from conservationists by negotiating tough new emissions rules for the oil and gas industry — and managing to get the state’s largest operators and big environmental groups together in supporting them — that will make Colorado the first state to regulate methane and subject most wells to monthly leak detection checks.
“Colorado has seen a tremendous boom in oil and gas drilling in recent years and as a result, an increase in impacts to our communities,” said Conservation Colorado’s Pete Maysmith, who also stood with Foote during last year’s fight over oil and gas fines.
“Oil and gas drillers should be held to the highest standards for protecting our public health and environment and should know there are strong consequences when they violate these standards. Increasing fines for violations will help ensure our public health and environment are better protected from heavy industrial drilling.”
After clearing the House Transportation Committee Wednesday on a 9-4 vote, H.B. 1356 moves to the House Finance Committee and then the full House for debate.