Bill would alter makeup of gas panel

Aim is to ban industry reps from serving on commission

DENVER — A former member of the state panel that oversees oil and gas development in the state told a House committee Thursday that commissioners of that group often have difficulty balancing who they serve.

Tresi Houpt, a former Garfield County commissioner and a former member of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, told the House Transportation & Energy Committee that it was always a tough call when it came to balancing down-well issues with the impact oil and gas drilling might have on the surface.

That’s why she supports a bill to prevent anyone from serving on the nine-member panel while still employed by the industry.

“My great concern was that you were charged with fostering the development of natural resources and the reduction of waste while protecting the health, safety and welfare of the environment,” Houpt told the committee. “You are put in the position as a commissioner to make a choice on what’s more important, the economic development side of developing those resources, or somebody’s health.”

Legislators sided with protecting those surface impacts, approving HB1269 on a 7-5 party-line vote, with Democrats supporting it.

Mark Cutright, a Republican who served on the panel at the same time as Houpt, said it is possible to serve on the commission and work in the industry.

As a petroleum engineer who has worked for several oil and gas drillers in the state, Cutright said he was able to do his job and still be a fair commissioner.

“You can review the record during my term and see that I could be described as being brashly harsh to the industry as well as being compassionate to the concerns of the citizens,” Cutright said. “I held the industry and the commission and the commission staff accountable. I led the charge during most of the violation hearings. I promoted the need for more inspections and more enforcement of the rules that we had in place. If there was any chance of conflict, perceived or actual, I would recuse myself.”

Regardless, Democrats on the committee said there’s still a problem, even at a time when current law allows only three of the nine commissioners on the panel to work for the industry.

The bill still requires those three commissioners to have expertise in the industry, they just can’t currently work for any oil or gas company, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette.

“We’ve heard a lot of testimony from folks that oppose this bill, and they think the system is fine just the way it is,” Foote said. “I wholeheartedly disagree, and I think most of the general public would disagree as well. There seems to be very little public trust in the system.”

Other opponents said the industry is always changing. Having someone who used to work in the industry isn’t going to be knowledgeable about the latest technologies, they said.

The measure, which heads to the Democratic-controlled House for more debate, isn’t going to make a difference in that perception, and it’s likely to be greeted unfavorably by Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist, said Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction.

Scott tried a couple of years ago to get a bill passed that would do the opposite — increase the number of industry experts on the panel.

“When I ran my bill ... the governor was very much opposed to being told how to run his commission,” Scott said. “I do believe you’re going to meet the same fate.”


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