Flooding and fracking are likely to be two main themes for Boulder County lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session.
State legislators representing local districts say they will focus on improving Colorado’s ability to respond to flooding and flood victims as well as strengthening regulations on oil and gas operators when the session begins Jan. 8.
Sen. Matt Jones (D-Louisville) says he and Rep. Mike Foote (D-Lafayette) plan to revive — and strengthen — a bill that didn’t survive last year’s session that would have increased daily fines assessed to oil and gas companies for spills and other regulatory violations. Like last year’s legislation, their new bill would not only raise those fines, but would remove a cap on penalties for certain violations, Jones says, adding that the reason they let their bill die last year was that the Senate took out a mandatory minimum fine for the worst violations.
Foote, who often carpools to the Capitol with Jones, says their new bill may also address the methods the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) uses to heavily discount fines assessed to operators who commit violations.
“We saw some instances where discretion wasn’t being used very wisely, in our opinion,” he explains, adding that in some cases the commission was slashing fines by more than 60 percent. “So you could have a fine that could have been as high as $500,000 that turned out to be $100,000.”
Foote says Gov. John Hickenlooper directed the COGCC to examine “best practices” in discounting its fines, and a report on that inquiry was due on Dec. 10 but hasn’t been released yet.
When asked whether Hickenlooper, who opposed many of the bills aimed at cracking down on oil and gas operations, may have softened his pro-industry stance in light of the bans and moratoria approved by voters along the Front Range this fall, Jones says, “I haven’t talked to him, but it’s really hard to ignore.”
“I hope so,” Foote adds.
Jones also says he’s made it clear to COGCC Director Matt Lepore that he’s not happy about the oil and gas industry suing 80 percent of his constituents, and that he hopes the state does not sue any of the municipalities that passed bans or moratoria this fall, as it did in the case of Longmont.
Falling property values Jones says he is open to considering legislation on a fracking topic that Boulder Weekly has been covering lately: making real estate devaluation part of the surface damages that an oil and gas company can be held liable for.
After reading recent BW articles about studies on the impact that nearby wells can have on homeowners’ property values, Jones said in a phone interview, “I find that really interesting, that someone is studying what a lot of us already knew, that if they move industrial operations several hundred feet from your house, it probably loses value. I’m glad someone’s systematically looking at it.”
Jones notes that while he hasn’t heard of any bills being introduced on that topic, he’d be willing to look into it.
“I think it’s hard to operationalize,” he says, “but at the same time, we talk about the environmental issues around [oil and gas operations], yet there are also people’s financial well-being issues.”
Rep. Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont) says one of his priorities related to oil and gas is to make sure the COGCC actually hired the additional well inspectors it received funding for last year. After a legislative effort by Singer and Foote to quadruple the number of inspectors failed, they worked language into the Long Bill to increase that figure by 60 percent, Foote says. Singer recalls telling the Republican lawmakers from Western Slope who opposed the move that “we have more oil and gas lobbyists than we do oil and gas inspectors,” an observation that caused some of them to laugh and agree. He notes that the COGCC was anticipating some difficulty in hiring additional inspectors because they are highly specialized jobs that require significant education and experience, often in rural areas, and those who are qualified often take higher-paying positions with the oil and gas industry.
Singer says he doesn’t expect to see as many oil and gas bills as last year, and Democrats will face an even steeper uphill battle than they did last year in the Senate, where two Democrats, John Morse and Angela Giron, have been recalled.
“The math just got a lot harder with the recalls,” he says. “We’re going to be very careful at counting our votes.”
Foote adds that the oil and gas industry has “a pretty good chokehold on the legislature, and it’s hard to break sometimes.”
Flood legislation Another fracking-related front lawmakers will be paying close attention to in the coming weeks are the various oil and gas spills caused by the September floods. Jones, Foote and Singer all serve on the state’s Flood Disaster Study Committee, which is expected to examine water contamination issues related to the flood at its Jan. 7 meeting.
“Whether it’s a wastewater treatment facility in a floodplain or a production site for oil and gas in a floodplain,” Singer says, “we should be looking at stricter standards for both.”
Members of that bipartisan flood committee are expected to introduce a host of bills as a result of that group’s work, and Foote says he’s hoping to gain enough support for legislation that would authorize the COGCC director to order an operator to shut down an oil and gas facility in an emergency or a natural disaster. Currently such an order requires a vote by the full COGCC, and some Republicans on the flood committee want to keep it that way.
“I think it’s a pretty common-sense bill, but any time you mention oil and gas, there are people who get defensive about it,” Foote says.
He also plans to introduce a bill designed to make the state’s emergency response more streamlined, efficient and immediate, in part by consolidating some advisory boards that report to the governor and giving the governor the ability to declare a disaster even if the president has not.
Also on the flood recovery front, Jones and Kevin Lundberg (R-Berthoud) are planning to run legislation that gives counties the ability to use their general fund to fix roads and bridges for a period of four years after the governor declares a disaster. (Currently, road and bridge funding is kept separate from the general fund.)
For his part, Singer has several flood-related bills in the works, including one that is designed to make sure residents whose homes were severely damaged or totally destroyed don’t have to pay county property tax. While the details are still being worked out, he says, flood victims might be eligible for a state income tax return in the amount of the property tax that is due.
“We want to make sure we’re not adding insult to injury at the state and county level by assessing taxes on things that no longer exist,” Singer explains.
When asked how the state would fund such a program, he says “we have a relatively rosy budget projection,” and legislators seem to agree that “flood recovery comes first.”
He’s also hoping to use a couple of programs in Lyons as models for helping small businesses deal with the flood’s economic impacts. Singer points to Oskar Blues’ CAN’d Aid Foundation, which is using donations to issue grants to owners of small businesses, and the town’s economic development commission, which is using a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the same purpose. He says he plans to run legislation to fund a similar initiative at the state level so that other flood-damaged communities and their small businesses can benefit.
Other priorites Freshman legislator and former Boulder City Council member KC Becker (D-Boulder), who succeeded Rep. Claire Levy when she stepped down this fall, says she plans to support her colleagues’ flood- and frackingrelated efforts, including signing on as a co-sponsor.
Becker, who will sit on the House Finance Committee and Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources
Committee, says she expects wildfire-related bills to play a prominent role in the session as well. She says that while she is still getting up to speed, her priorities include poverty reduction and “getting money to where it needs to go” for flood relief. Becker says she plans to sponsor an animal welfare bill as well as legislation to boost science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.
She also anticipates that Democrats will have to “play defense” on some of the most controversial legislation passed last spring, from renewable energy standards for rural co-ops to gun-control measures.
In addition to flooding and fracking, Jones says his main priorities will include jobs, schools and fire recovery. He’s planning to run a bill expanding incentives for creating charging stations for electric cars, and he’s placing emphasis on promoting clean-energy jobs, renewable energy and energy conservation, as well as restoring and protecting education funding.
Singer says his other priorities include reviving a wage theft bill that has been defeated twice before and would give the Department of Labor the authority and staff to “mediate, investigate and adjudicate” cases where employers are accused of “not paying what they promised,” an occurrence that he says is especially problematic in blue-collar and entry-level white-collar jobs.
Foote says he’ll be keeping a close eye on whether the new rules expected to be approved by the Air Quality Control Commission in February are stringent enough. He didn’t rule out the possibility of lawmakers taking matters into their own hands if those regulations are too soft.
“There’s always the possibility of running legislation, but we’re hoping they will adopt strong rules,” Foote says.