Oil and gas rules clear final hurdle, go to governor

Controversial new oil and gas rules in Colorado await only the signature of their champion-in-chief, Gov. Bill Ritter, after they passed their last legislative hurdle Wednesday.

The Colorado Senate approved the rules package in a 21-13, party-line vote, amid renewed objections by Republican senators concerned about their potential economic impacts.

Wednesday’s decision clears the way for the rules legislation to be signed by Ritter, a Democrat. A date for that signing hadn’t been set Wednesday.

Harris Sherman, executive director of the state Department of Natural Resources and chairman of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said Ritter will need to sign the rules bill within the next several days in order for them to take effect as scheduled next Wednesday on nonfederal lands. On federal lands, they’re scheduled to go into effect May 1.

The rules are the outgrowth of 2007 laws promoted by Ritter that require a better balance to be struck between oil and gas development and protection of public health, the environment and wildlife. After a year and a half of consideration, the oil and gas commission adopted the new regulations in December, but they were subject to legislative review.

The Legislature took up the rules this year at a time when the oil and gas industry has been sharply cutting back drilling in Colorado. Republicans say the anticipated cost and delays of the new rules helped contribute to the pullback, causing more job losses during a recession.

“Bottom line, this bill, the governor’s rule, will kill jobs and reduce energy production at a time when we need more of both,” Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, said during Wednesday’s Senate debate.

Democratic senators blamed the industry slowdown on other factors, such as a drop in natural gas prices.

Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, said it’s important that Colorado’s natural resources be extracted in an environmentally friendly way. He voiced confidence in the new rules and the oil and gas commission.

“I think this is the closing chapter, and it’s time to turn the page. … I really and truly believe this process will work,” he said.

Wednesday’s final Senate vote came after Senate Democrats on Tuesday rebuffed a last-ditch Republican attempt led by Penry to try to amend some of the rules.

Nate Strauch, communications coordinator for the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, said his group supported the amendment. It would have addressed some industry concerns, such as the ability of landowners to seek hearings to appeal approvals of drilling permits on their property. It also would have toughened some standards, by tripling fines for noise and odor violations and increasing buffer zones between operations and water supplies.

“It was certainly a sensible compromise and it’s unfortunate the Senate decided to vote it down,” Strauch said.

Sherman said only about a half dozen of 100 new oil and gas rules were debated by the Legislature in recent weeks, and the rest had bipartisan support.

“If in the future certain rules prove problematic, we will without question take a further look at them,” he said.


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