Focus of Colorado energy bill turns to industry-linked Firestone explosion

Author: Peter Marcus - May 8, 2017 - Updated: May 8, 2017


A measure aimed at restructuring energy policy in Colorado was overshadowed Monday by a recent home explosion in Firestone linked to natural gas leaking from an old pipeline.

Democrats attempted to amend Senate Bill 301 – a 57-page piece of legislation that focuses heavily on natural gas and the Colorado Energy Office – to address mapping existing gas lines.

The bill passed the Senate Monday on an initial vote, but without the amendments. It still must pass the chamber on a recorded vote Tuesday, before advancing to the House, where a Democratic majority is likely to kill it.

The conversation took shape after the recent devastating event in Firestone, where a home that sits 178 feet from a well exploded, killing two men in a devastating explosion. The bodies of brothers-in-law Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin, both 42, were discovered in the basement one day after the explosion. Martinez’s wife, Erin, was seriously injured.

A separate piece of legislation introduced by Democrats in the House Friday also would require oil and gas companies to provide clear maps to the public showing where pipelines are located, though that faces an uphill battle.

In the case of the Firestone explosion, an underground line had been cut about 10 feet from the house, state regulators said. Gas seeped through the ground and into the basement, where it exploded on April 17.

Senate Republicans have made it clear that it is unlikely legislation would pass through the divided legislature this year with three days left in the session. But that didn’t stop Democrats from trying.

Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, a vocal critic of the oil and gas industry, pushed failed amendments to Senate Bill 301 that would have addressed the issue of gas flowlines.

“I can’t tell you how awful I feel about what happened in Firestone … it’s tragic,” Jones said. “I waited to see what they would find and they found it was a flowline … We have a moral responsibility to try to not have that happen ever again.”

State and industry officials have acknowledged that they do not know where every flowline in the state exists, especially older abandoned ones, as was the case in Firestone. But Republicans worry about rushing to action.

“I always worry about knee-jerk reactions to anything,” said Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling. “It’s smarter for us to wait for the final results.”

Another failed amendment offered by Jones would have created a 2,000-foot setback around homes from oil and gas operations. Jones said the fact that his amendments did not pass over GOP objections indicates that “the oil and gas industry has a strangle-hold on Republican legislators.”

Industry representatives say they are worried about jurisdictional issues with a patchwork of agencies regulating a mapping program. The industry is also concerned about rushing to legislation this year.

Senate Bill 301 – described by Republicans as far-reaching – would maintain funding for the Colorado Energy Office, while restructuring it and doing away with certain programs. It is supported by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Energy Office.

Environmental interests, however, worry that the bill is being rushed through the legislature with just days left in the session.

While the bill would maintain funding for the Energy Office so that it is not eliminated, it would make changes to a host of renewable energy and other programs in the state, including eliminating some of those programs.

The legislation would expand the Colorado Energy Office’s focus to include nuclear and hydropower, while giving the oil and gas industry a greater voice at the table.

“This is a last-minute bill crafted by Republican senators with input only from a few chosen stakeholders,” said Theresa Conley, advocacy director for Conservation Colorado. “That reality is reflected in the bill, which is a non-starter for anyone but the natural gas industry.”

Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, the sponsor of the legislation, said his main focus is on bolstering natural gas in the state. The bill would eliminate a prohibition on investor-owned utilities owning natural gas reserves. Scott said the prohibition raises costs for consumers.

An investor-owned utility is owned by private investors and members. The legislation would direct the state to create rules allowing an investor-owned utility to acquire an interest in Colorado-based natural gas reserves for up to 50 percent of its needs.

But concerns also exist around that provision. Some fear it would allow utilities to pass acquisition costs on to ratepayers.

“We need to shift to wind and solar energy as quickly as we can,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, this bill is going to promote gas which pollutes and contributes to climate change.”

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus is senior statehouse reporter for Colorado Politics. He covers the legislature and previously covered politics, the governor’s office, the legislature and Congress for The Durango Herald. He joined The Herald in 2014 from The Colorado Statesman, a Denver-based political weekly. The Washington Post twice named Marcus one of the nation’s top state-based political and legislative reporters.