By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
On Thursday, Republican legislators waged a two-pronged attack on regulations proposed to govern Colorado’s burgeoning oil and gas industry — going public with an anti-rule rally at Civic Center Park and returning to the Capitol to try to delay passage of the rules bill by adding hundreds of amendments designed to water it down.
Nevertheless, after nearly four hours of debate, the new rules passed the full House, 37-to-27, with Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, breaking ranks to vote with the Republicans against them.
At issue are nearly 100 new regulations mandating that before drilling for oil and gas, energy firms must meet various public-health, environmental and wildlife-protection standards. The state began reviewing the rules in 2007, after lawmakers voted nearly unanimously to update the state’s regulations.
House Democrats and environmentalists say the new rules are especially needed considering that more than 8,000 oil and gas rig permits were issued in 2008 — up more than 100 percent since 2005. Furthermore, supporters say, the state is poised to see tens of thousands of new wells in coming decades.
Opponents, including members of the natural gas and oil industry and a united Republican caucus, say the new rules will drive up the cost of energy production in Colorado, keep energy companies from bringing jobs to the state and negate the rights of private landowners who may not be able to allow new drilling on their property because of state concerns over wildlife protection.
“The choice we must make today is people, not prairie dogs,” said Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs. “These are people. These are jobs we’re talking about here.”
But Democrats balked at the criticism and accused Republicans of deflecting the debate from the real issue: bringing a more balanced and well-thought approach to natural gas drilling in Colorado.
“This rule is not about people vs. prairie dogs,” said Rep. Claire Levy, D-Denver. “That may make for good rhetoric. It may make a good sound bite for the newspapers, but that is not what this about … we are voting on how we balance all the interests at stake in Colorado when we have a flourishing oil and gas industry.”
Earlier in the week, Republicans led by Rep. Cory Gardner, of Yuma, asked Gov. Bill Ritter to halt implementation of the new rules and regulations.
During a bipartisan press conference on Monday, Gardner said implementation of the regulations, which have the full support of Ritter’s office, will hurt Colorado’s economy and kill jobs in counties that rely on the oil and gas industry for their livelihood.
“We can slow this train down before it wrecks Colorado,” Gardner said. “I get phone calls from people in my hometown county every day who are concerned about losing their jobs.”
Although Gardner called for delayed implementation of the new rules when talking to reporters on Monday, in a letter to Ritter dated on the same day, his actual request was unclear.
“The new (rules) have caused uneasiness for these industry employers, who are also facing the increasing pressure of a recession,” Gardner wrote. “Action must be taken. We ask you, as our governor and the chief executive officer of this state, not to sit idly by as these precious jobs slip away.”
Through spokesman Evan Dreyer, Ritter’s office indicated it will move forward to implement the rules, which, Dreyer noted, were crafted over a two-year period with input from environmental, agricultural and wildlife interests as well as the oil and gas industry.
Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll agreed, saying the Republicans use the bad economy as an excuse to oppose most of the legislation pushed by the Democrats this year, and that the vagueness of Gardner’s letter to Ritter is part of that tactic.
“I am not surprised their request is vague,” Carroll said. “(It’s) probably because their guesses about what the rules and regulations will do to the oil and gas industry are (built) on quicksand.”
Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, introduced an amendment Thursday afternoon to delay the implementation of the rules for one year. It was defeated by the Democrats on a voice vote.
“What are we going to gain by suspending these rules for a year?” Levy said. “These (rules were drafted) by a very diverse commission… and these rules were passed with unanimity. If we hold off on these rules for a year, we will be right back here a year from now, having the same conversation.”
Gardner and the Republicans were not alone in their concern.
Flanked by Republicans, Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, stood at the podium in the well Thursday to explain why he believes the new rules will have a dire effect on Colorado.
A rancher and outdoorsman, McKinley said the new rules shouldn’t be implemented at a time when the economy is sagging and should give more weight to personal property rights.
“We are turning the protection of wildlife over to a regulatory agency that will take away from private property rights,” McKinley said, referring to the Department of Wildlife. “I just don’t see how we can be making rules that hurt property owners when our economy is in this situation. If there is a conflict between a new oil rig and a prairie dog, who do you think is going to win?
“The prairie dog!”