Politics getting gassed

For the third straight election cycle, rules governing oil and gas drilling in this state are front and center in Colorado’s political campaigns. But the issue has changed dramatically.

Four years ago, demand for tougher environmental and health regulations on the industry helped put Bill Ritter in the governor’s mansion. In 2008, concerns about regulating the industry played a part in state legislative races and county commission races.

This year, there’s widespread animosity aimed at the new state rules, and even Democrats like Denver Mayor and gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper are trying to put distance between themselves and the so-called Ritter rules.

In a letter on the Commentary page Friday, state Sen. Josh Penry criticized this newspaper for backing the rule changes and providing cover for Ritter and the Democrats to send energy jobs packing.

That’s fine. He’s got every right to disagree with us. We won’t hide from our record, The Daily Sentinel endorsed Ritter and the 2007 legislation that authorized the changes. We also supported most of the final rules approved by the Legislature. We did suggest last spring that implementation of the new rules should be postponed until the economy improved.

These days Penry rarely mentions that he voted for both of those 2007 bills that authorized changes. He was a cosponsor of the bill that required the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to consult with the state Division of Wildlife on applications for drilling permits, one of the most controversial changes.

Penry has said the final rules went far beyond what the Legislature intended. But last year, when he was proposing changes to the rules, Penry insisted, “This isn’t a sweeping rewrite. We’re willing to give the governor about 90 percent of what he wants.”

Economic and political situations change, of course, and so do people’s opinions. And it’s not just members of one party. Republicans are understandably raising a ruckus over Hickenlooper’s apparent change in his views on climate change.

Just two months ago, while attending the international climate-change summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, Hickenlooper indicated he believed there was little room for skepticism about climate science, according to The Denver Post. But, when he spoke to mining executives in Denver last week, Hickenlooper said, “I don’t think that the scientific community has decided with certainty that climate change is as catastrophic as so many people think.”

In addition, Hickenlooper’s Republican opponent, Scott McInnis, has attacked Hickenlooper for acting “like a friend of natural gas” when he did nothing to oppose the new drilling rules.

More to the point now is this: What impact are the rules actually having on the industry and what should be done about them?

Many experts say the new rules have added to cost and uncertainty, but the economy and gas prices have had far greater impact.

Weekly drill rig counts done by the firm of Baker Hughes show that as of Feb. 5, Colorado was second only to New Mexico in the number of natural gas drill rigs operating, with 48 rigs. And no other nearby states have instituted new rules like Colorado’s.

But that’s small consolation for places like Mesa County, where the unemployment rate, foreclosure rate and rental vacancy rate are all the highest in Colorado.

So, by all means, as campaigns heat up, let’s demand that candidates tell us what they think should be done with the rules. But let’s not forget that just a few years ago, many Coloradans were demanding stricter regulations because they had witnessed first-hand what could occur when there weren’t adequate protections.


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