Colorado Democrats pare down major oil and gas permitting bill

Colorado Democrats stripped a massive oil and gas permitting bill of its most stringent measures late Thursday night in an effort to garner support from Gov. Jared Polis and to improve its chances of making it through a legislative session that is swiftly nearing its end.

Almost all of the air-quality provisions of HB23-1294 that would have made it more difficult for oil and gas companies to receive new drilling permits were removed by the bill’s sponsors during a House committee meeting that ended after 10:30 p.m. and drew comments from nearly 140 supporters and opponents, the latter of which were led by the oil and gas industry.

The new version of the bill was approved by the House Energy and Environment Committee on an 8-3 vote, with the three dissenting votes coming from Republicans.

A provision that would have required state regulators to perform a modeling analysis of potential air pollution before companies applied for a permit with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission was removed. The oil and gas industry had complained that step would slow down the permitting process so much that new permits essentially would be impossible to get.

The bill’s sponsors retained provisions that will enhance the complaint process for citizens who find oil and gas operators have violated state and federal air emissions regulations.

If approved, the bill would strike a state law that requires Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division to independently verify a complaint filed by a resident before opening an investigation. Environmentalists say that state law protects the oil and gas industry because it is hard to replicate the same conditions, since operation levels vary throughout the day and even the weather can change emissions levels.

The change would allow the state to accept independent air monitoring findings and even complaints that a drilling site smelled particularly foul on a certain day.

The bill also would set up a 30-day timeline to notify operators and complainants that an investigation has begun and then create a 90-day deadline for making a determination.

The bill was written by a coalition of environmental groups such as EarthJustice and Earthworks and had support among local grassroots environmental advocates such as Moms Clean Air Force, Cultivando and GreenLatinos. Those groups say the state needs more urgency in solving its ozone problem and the bill would have made significant improvement by better regulating new oil and gas permits.

“No one there that was going to testify against the bill was going to talk about the benefits of pollution because there are none,” said Patricia Garcia-Nelson of Green Latinos. “We don’t have time to delay to make these changes.”

Becca Curry, Colorado policy counsel for EarthJustice, said permitting is a tough conversation because of the economic impact of the industry. But it needs to be done.

“If we’re ever going to address our ozone crisis, we have to talk about permitting reforms,” Curry said. “While our focus has been on reducing pollution, we cannot have faith we’re going get back into compliance with ozone standards unless we look closely at how we are bringing new sources online.”

The bill would create a committee to study the permitting regulations over the next year. And it retained some things still disliked by the oil and gas industry, including a measure that would require companies to seek a new air permit if they make modifications to their sites. Right now, modifications to a site already approved for a permit do not need a review.

Environmentalists have tried to get an oil and gas permitting bill through the legislature for two years as the state’s air quality worsens. This week, the American Lung Association placed metro Denver, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs on its top 20 list of American cities with the worst air pollution. And the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed the metro area and northern Front Range to be in “severe non-attainment” of federal air quality standards.

A similar bill was killed in a backroom deal in 2021 and then the primary sponsor resigned from the legislature after facing criminal charges.

But state Reps. Jennifer Bacon and Jenny Wilford, both Democrats, took up the cause.

From the get-go, Polis has opposed the bill, and on Thursday representatives from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment testified against the pared-down version, signaling the governor still is not on board.

Trisha Oeth, director of environmental health and protection at the state health department, said the bill’s proposed investigation requirements would be a burden on her department.

“We value responsiveness and investigating complaints,” Oeth said in written remarks provided to The Denver Post. “However, the prescriptive deadlines related to enforcement activities are fundamentally unworkable and drive a large component of the fiscal impact for implementation.”

A fiscal analysis of the latest version of the bill said it would cost $22 million over the next two years to implement.

The oil and gas industry said the original version of the bill would be a back-door ban on new drilling permits because it would have made the permitting process so cumbersome and time-consuming.

The bill “is unworkable and the policies it seeks to compel would do no less than shutter the industrial processes upon which hundreds of thousands of Coloradans rely for work, let alone the millions who depend on the products and services they provide,” Lynn Granger, Midwest and Mountain West Region director for the American Petroleum Institute, said during Thursday’s hearing.

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