DENVER – Colorado Democrats, alongside the survivor of the deadly 2017 Firestone home explosion, on Thursday announced they would be introducing in coming days a “sweeping” oil and gas local control measure they say will give local governments more power to regulate the industry how they wish in their own backyards.
House Speaker K.C. Becker, D-Boulder, and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, are the bill’s sponsors and announced the measure, which they say will be the most “meaningful” oil and gas bill written in 60 years, alongside Gov. Jared Polis and Erin Martinez, who survived the Firestone explosion at her home but saw her husband and brother die.
“Right now, oil and gas laws in Colorado tilt heavily toward the industry. We are going to correct that tilt so that health, safety, and environment are no longer ignored by state agencies,” Becker said. “This bill would also ensure that local government have a greater ability to represent the interests of the people they serve.”
Becker and Fenberg outlined how oil and gas industry technology has changed over the past six decades, saying that the industry had evolved but Colorado’s laws hadn’t kept up. The two, along with Polis, discussed how growth in Colorado has led to neighborhoods creeping in on land historically used by the industry, and how the industry continues to develop new sites closer and closer to the growing cities and towns across Colorado.
The Democratic leaders said that the bill would ensure that the mission of the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry in Colorado, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), would be to regulate the industry rather than to foster it – as has been the criticism from environmental groups and others who say the COGCC has spent more time looking out for industry interests than it has the interests of Coloradans.
“State regulators absolutely must put health and safety ahead of industry profits,” Becker said at a news conference announcing the new measure.
She said the measure would not be “window dressing,” but that it was also “not an attack on the industry.” Becker added that the measure was about “empowering communities” and protecting Coloradans’ public health and safety as well as the health of the environment.
Adams County Commissioner Eva Henry said she supported the measure, arguing that local communities “don’t have a seat at the table” currently and adding: “A one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work in a state as diverse as ours.”
She said the measure “gives communities the clear authorities to tailor [regulations] to meet their needs.”
Though the bill has not been formally introduced and a copy is not yet publicly available, the lawmakers who spoke at Thursday’s news conference and a fact sheet released afterward said that the measure will allow local governments to regulate the industry operations in the areas and have more of a say on regulating land use, surface impacts, siting, and in new and historical development in the area.
They argue that handing over more local control over such development will save the governments from costly lawsuits that many cities and counties have been mired in over the past several years as well.
Polis praised Becker and Fenberg’s leadership in creating the bill, saying that they worked with the industry and other stakeholders to gather input before writing the measure, though some disputed that. He said that the measure clarifies legal parameters for local governments, which he said currently “exists in a gray legal area.”
He also said that there would be changes at the COGCC if the measure makes its way to his desk and is signed, including ensuring that one of the commissioners has public health expertise and an expansion of disclosure requirements and monitoring. There are also changes to forced pooling measures to try and protect property owners and mineral rights owners.
“We know this bill won’t solve every single issue related to development of oil and gas, but we do know it goes a long way,” Polis said.
Becker said that the measure builds on changes former Gov. John Hickenlooper made to the COGCC and the industry after the Firestone explosion in April 2017, when he required more disclosure of the current status of active and inactive flowlines.
And all lawmakers who spoke made clear that though they received input from most of the various stakeholders in Colorado, this bill was written on their own.
“Our intention here was to write a bill that solves the major issues associated with oil and gas development and its impact on people. We believe that’s what this bill accomplishes, and when it’s signed into law, will accomplish,” Fenberg said. “We wrote the bill. The industry did not write the bill. Activists didn’t write the bill.”
Patricia Nelson, an activist whose first-grade son goes to Bella Romero Academy in Greeley, which has been a flashpoint of the fight between activists and the industry, said she supported the bill.
"I definitely hope to see it all the way to the governor's desk. And I really hope Jared Polis is brave enough ... he said in his campaign that he was going to be hold enough to make change in Colorado," she said.
Victim of Firestone explosion speaks for first time
Erin Martinez, who was severely burned in the April 2017 Firestone explosion and whose husband, Mark Martinez, and brother, Joey Irwin, were killed in the explosion, spoke publicly for the first time Thursday to announce she was backing the measure.
“I understand no one ever intended for this to happen. I have no desire to destroy an industry,” she said. “Lots of good people depend on this industry for their livelihoods. I respect that. However, with great tragedy should also come great change.”
She said that “nobody” should have to endure what she has over the past two years and said that she felt a “direct responsibility to keep from happening.”
She detailed how methane had crept into her basement from an uncapped flowline, which exploded as her husband and brother were working on a water heater in the home’s basement.
“The gas leak went undetected for four months,” she said. “It should have been inspected and it should have been pressure tested.”
She also recounted a harrowing experience that followed in the months after the explosion, as she and her son worked to find a new home.
She said they searched for months to find one that was away from any wells or flowlines, at her son’s request. Once they found one, Martinez said she was assured there was only a far-off plugged and abandoned well.
But she said that months later, she watched as crews dug behind her home, inching closer and closer to her backyard. Eventually, she says, they discovered the abandoned well in the backyard of the neighbor she shared a fence with.
Now they are moving again, she said, and she is “trying to get [her] son to trust that it will be OK.”
She ended her portion of the news conference with a plea to the oil and gas industry to not stand in the measure’s way.
“As this bill is debated, the oil and gas industry may say my family’s case is a fluke and that a tragedy like this will never happen again. But as Colorado keeps growing, we will continue to build neighborhoods and businesses and schools in places where oil and gas wells and flowlines also exist,” Martinez said. “The time is now to make a change. As an industry, I would think you would want to make all the necessary changes to prevent something this tragic from happening again. Mark and Joey deserved better. We all deserve better.”
How other stakeholders are reacting
In January, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s decision that said the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission was required to weigh the impact of oil and gas development on public health and the environment in deciding whether to approve new drilling permits and rules pertaining to the oil and gas industry in Colorado.
And two separate ballot measures were voted down by Colorado voters in November – one backed by environmental groups that would have increased setbacks for new development and one backed by the oil and gas industry that would have required the state to compensate property owners for any laws that would have reduced their property value.
After Thursday’s announcement, the executive director of Colorado Rising, the group that backed the Proposition 112 setbacks measure on the 2018 midterm ballot, said they were waiting to see what the bill’s language looked like before passing any judgment – though lawmakers said Thursday that the measure contained no statewide setback changes and that would be up to local governments to change.
"Colorado Rising brought the ballot initiative that generated massive statewide interest on how the state of Colorado deals with oil and gas issues. We have not seen any final language of the bill discussed at today’s press conference,” Executive Director Joe Salazar said. “As such, we have no position on any possible bill that may be brought. What we will say, however, is that families (Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike) are being affected by this abusive industry and we are on the brink of a climate catastrophe. We are hoping Colorado will do its part to protect our environment and people."
A handful of environmental groups said they would likely support the measure.
"The lack of modern, common sense protections from fracking for oil and gas in Colorado has endangered the health of our children, and put our first responders in harm's way," said Conservation Colorado Executive Director Kelly Nordini. "It's time for change. It's time for Colorado's leaders to put the health and safety of Coloradans before the profits of oil and gas companies."
The Colorado Business Roundtable, a panel of business leaders from across the state, said they hoped that lawmakers would engage them as the bill is debated at the state Capitol and urged them to protect the business interests tied into the state’s oil and gas industry.
“Since the defeat of Proposition 112, leaders in Colorado’s oil and natural gas industry have worked collaboratively with a wide spectrum of stakeholders to increase setbacks from schools and have shown a genuine willingness to work with legislators and the Polis administration on additional constructive improvements to the state’s regulatory framework, which already is considered a national leader. This collaborative spirit should continue to serve as the model going forward,” the group said in a statement.
Colorado Petroleum Council Executive Director Tracee Bentley said after the bill’s announcement Thursday that the organization was disappointed in the stakeholder process that Fenberg said had been inclusive of the industry.
“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. 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," Bentley said.
“This should make any industry, organization, or citizen group in Colorado nervous about a transparent, public legislative process from here forward and all Coloradans should consider the negative consequences of not having a stakeholder process in the creation of new legislation," she added.
Colorado Oil and Gas Association President and CEO Dan Haley said his organization looked forward to seeing the bill but called some of what the Democrats said at Thursday's news conference "revisionist history" and pointed to what he said were open and bipartisan discussions with three past governors. But he said he would try to work with lawmakers.
"While we're offended by this intentional mischaracterization of our industry, we're committed to the upcoming legislative process because we're committed to Colorado," Haley said. "We share the values expressed today by the governor and our legislative leaders for clean air, clean water, and safe communities. Lawmakers who debate this bill should keep in mind the private property rights of countless Coloradans and the more than 100,000 working oil and gas families in the state, including in Boulder County."
But Fenberg tried to make clear that he felt the bill they have put together would accomplish what they are hoping for without leaving oil and gas interests behind.
“We wrote the bill in a way that it will be smart policy and accomplish the goal of protecting people and their health and safety,” Fenberg said. “And we’re very confident that’s what this bill does, and we’re looking forward to the debate and the discussion that will come in the weeks ahead.”
Denver7's Jennifer Kovaleski contributed to this report.