Lawmakers say many of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s plans to address the oil and gas industry in the aftermath of a tragic explosion in Firestone are already in the works.
Hickenlooper, a Democrat and former geologist, ordered a review of existing oil and gas operations in the aftermath of the April incident, in which two men died in a home explosion. The incident was caused by natural gas leaking from an old pipeline, according to an initial investigation.
On Tuesday, the governor announced the state’s response, which includes asking the oil and gas industry to take greater responsibility.
One issue the governor is looking at is abandoned wells, which have been estimated as high as 800 in the state. He proposed creating a nonprofit to plug abandoned wells and provide refunds for in-home methane monitors, something which the oil and gas industry could be responsible for.
But Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, says bipartisan legislation he was working on last year would have addressed abandoned wells. A controversial bill that would have extended funding for the Colorado Energy Office was killed on the last day of the session after Republicans and Democrats hit an impasse.
A portion of the initial bill would have required the state to put a stakeholder group together to identify voluntary methods to address funding shortfalls associated with the long-term management of abandoned oil and gas facilities.
“Within that bill we had the orphan well situation in there, we had the mapping, and the Democrats stripped the bill… They need to own that a little bit instead of coming out now and saying the governor is a genius,” Scott said.
He added that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has a fund for abandoned wells, which it could draw from without the oil and gas industry paying additional money for plugging orphan wells.
“That agency has the money to do exactly what needs to be done and they should have been doing it for the last multiple years,” Scott said. “To make an issue today… it’s nonsensical.”
Hickenlooper’s plan would go further than simply identifying voluntary methods to address the long-term management of abandoned wells by actively plugging the wells through a nonprofit, despite Scott’s contention that it could be done without a new program.
Another plan raised by the governor would enhance efforts around protecting underground infrastructure and promoting excavator and public safety education. But Scott said he was working on bipartisan legislation this year with Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, which would have also addressed the issue.
“There’s nothing magical about what he said,” Scott said of Hickenlooper’s plan.
The bill Scott worked on with Donovan last year would have required engineering plans involving excavation to include specific information about the location of underground facilities. Plans would have had to be given to the person conducting the excavation. The bill died in committee.
“The Firestone incident took place and it all became political,” Scott said. “I actually sat down with Sen. Donovan and said, ‘You and I can pass this bill in committee if we just utter the word ‘Firestone.’’ We agreed that was the wrong thing to do.”
He said he has been working on the bill over the summer, which Scott hopes to resurrect in next year’s legislative session. A meeting is scheduled for the end of the month with engineers and architects involved with excavation.
“Had that (policy) been in place, Firestone may have never happened,” Scott said.
“It’s not genuine on his (Hickenlooper’s) part to take things that are already being worked on and try to come out and say, ‘I have a new idea,’” Scott continued.
Meanwhile, some Democrats say plans should go further than what the governor proposed. A handful of lawmakers this year proposed regulating residential development near operations, something that the governor does not mention in his Tuesday announcement. That discussion could resume again in the legislature next year.
“This plan isn’t protective enough,” Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, said of the governor’s announcement.
“Colorado should be prioritizing people’s health and safety, and not big corporations’ profits. Oil and gas operations have no business being near people’s homes, playgrounds, or schools, and the public has a right to know exactly where existing flowlines are. It is downright baffling to me that within all these steps and proposals, there is not a single suggestion to include the voices of and receive input from homeowners, who are the most impacted by oil and gas operations. Those families are the ones who are in fear of breathing carcinogenic gas or being blown up – why aren’t they being included in the decision-making process?
“I’m going to keep working to keep these dangerous operations away from people and to protect people’s property rights…” Jones continued. “The governor pledged to ‘take any necessary action to ensure this doesn’t happen again,’ and I hope he joins me in that effort.”
Other plans announced by the governor include strengthening regulations around existing gas lines; prohibiting homeowners from tapping into industry gas lines; creating a workgroup to improve safety training; requesting a review of some state rules; and exploring a methane leak detection pilot program.
House Democratic Leader KC Becker of Boulder said the plans are “good steps but certainly not the end of the conversation.”
“Public health and safety should be our No. 1 concern,” Becker said. “I hope we can make progress in that regard in the 2018 legislative session.”