Strengthened bill to alter makeup, mission of Colo. oil and gas commission heads to Senate floor

Suncor Benzene Leak

A massive cleanup effort was initiated after an oily black sludge containing benzene leaked into the Sand Creek waterway, which feeds the South Platte River, from Suncor. December 2011.

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DENVER — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper believes the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission strikes a delicate but suitable balance in protecting natural resources and simultaneously encouraging energy development.

House Bill 1269 was introduced by those who disagree, Democrats and environmental groups who believe the Commission’s dual mandate is a natural conflict between competing interests.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, and Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, would change the COGCC’s dual mandate, putting environmental protection above supporting the industry, which has its own trade group, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, to do that, proponents of the bill argue.

“Are we in favor of commerce at any cost? Or the protection of our present and our children’s future?” asked R.J. Harrington with the group, Clean Energy Action.

The version of the bill that passed the House also forces the three representatives of the industry serving on the nine-member board to disclose any financial ties to the industry or other potential conflicts of interest; the original draft of the bill aimed to prevent oil and gas employees from serving on the COGCC at all.

On Monday at the end of a hearing that lasted more than three hours, Jones amended the bill back to the original House version so that representatives of the industry can’t serve on the board.

The legislation survived a long hearing before the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee Monday, passing on a vote of 3-2. But, given Hickenlooper’s opposition, it’s chances of becoming law remain very much in doubt — especially so now that the bill includes stronger restrictions on the oil and gas industry.

Hickenlooper, a former geologist, isn’t about to change the COGCC’s mandate or remove the industry’s voice.

Jones’ unexpected move to amend the bill could also be a strategic move to give him additional leverage heading into a floor debate on the measure later this week.

Many of the citizens who testified in support of the proposal came from Longmont, which Hickenlooper has sued to stop a municipal fracking ban; one of them, Kaye Fissinger of Longmont, even called the governor “the industry’s most powerful lobbyist.”

“He should be ashamed of himself,” Fissinger said.

Mike King, the director of the Dept. of Natural Resources, testified against the bill, as did attorney Howard Boigon, a former president of COGA who argued that changing the Commission’s mission would effectively open up every drilling permit issued to second-guessing.

The South Metro Chamber of Commerce also argued that the legislation would have the effect of slowing down oil and gas development in the state.

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