Drill rig tampering could soon be a felony

Tampering with oil or gas drilling equipment would become a felony under a bill the Colorado Senate is considering.

Republicans who support the measure, SB35, say it is a matter of public safety because tampering with such equipment by someone who doesn’t know anything about it could put others in danger.

Democrats, however, say it is nothing more than an attempt to intimidate people who might want to protest against such things as new pipelines or drilling rigs.

Sen. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, said it already is a misdemeanor to tamper with such equipment, and that should be enough.

“If we make it a felony, that will scare, and justifiably scare those who want to make a perfectly lawful, peaceful protest about an oil or gas rig being too close to their homes, being too disruptive to them by traffic coming through. It will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech.”

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said he introduced the bill because it is something that should be deterred, particularly since it can place whole communities in danger.

“There is nothing more peaceful than taking bolt cutters and cutting off locks, changing the pressure on valves and pipelines to put an entire community in jeopardy,” he said. “You know as well as I do, pipelines are rated for certain pressures, and now all of a sudden it’s considered a peaceful protest ... to jeopardize the entire community from a catastrophic event. You’re telling me that shouldn’t be a felony?”

Under current law, such tampering is punishable as a class 2 misdemeanor of up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. A class 6 felony, which is what the crime would be under the bill, would make it punishable by up to 18 months in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, said making it a felony might make sense if such things actually were happening in Colorado.

Citing a fiscal analysis of the measure done by non-partisan legislative staff, Fields said the record shows that there has been one incident of vandalism on oil or gas equipment in more than three years, the details of which were not elaborated.

“There’s not a problem in Colorado,” she said. “No one is cutting off the locks. No one is tampering with these oil rigs. This is just not taking place in the state of Colorado. Right now in the state there is no history, there is no trend, there is no pattern that people are tampering and cutting locks on oil rigs or gas equipment. Why are we using our criminal justice system to go after a problem that does not exist?”

In recent months, activists in North Dakota recently ended protests against a proposed pipeline near a Native American reservation, an event that attracted several Colorado elected officials, all Democrats.

As part of those protests, news reports showed that some activists acting in solidarity with those protesters had tampered with nearby pipelines, successfully shutting some down.

Sonnenberg said there are two active cases on the Western Slope right now, but wasn’t specific about where, what or when, other than to say that one involved a “drive-by shooting” of an oil well.

“This has nothing to do with peaceful protests,” he said.

The bill cleared the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources & Energy Committee earlier this month on a 6-5 party-line vote with Republicans on the panel, including Ray Scott of Grand Junction and Don Coram of Montrose, voting for it.

Vail Democratic Sen. Kerry Donovan, whose district includes Delta County, voted against it.

Senators are scheduled to debate the measure on the Senate floor as early as Monday.


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