Setbacks Bill Sponsor Admits Likely Defeat Amid Opposition From Elected Officials, Business Leaders

At a Longmont City Council meeting yesterday evening, the sponsor of a statewide bill seeking to expand setback requirements for oil and natural gas development near schools admitted that the bill will likely be killed. Given the widespread opposition to the bill from local elected officials, state representatives, and business leaders across the state, his pessimism about the bill’s prospects is not surprising.

The bill, proposed by Rep. Mike Foote (D-Longmont), was approved by the Colorado House of Representatives on a party-line vote last week and is now under consideration in the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

Attempts to increase setbacks have long been a tactic used by activists all over the country to try to ban drilling, and proposals to increase setbacks were considered but rejected by Gov. John Hickenlooper’s (D) oil and gas task force in 2015, which was established under a deal to keep anti-energy initiatives off the ballot the year before. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), the state agency that regulates oil and natural gas development, increased setbacks in 2013.

After Rep. Foote delivered his pitch for his bill to the Longmont City Council yesterday evening, City Council Member Bonnie Finley (R) asked, “I understand the bill has gone over to the Senate. Do you have any bipartisan support for it over there at all? Is there any hope at all that this would pass?”

“Well, I think hope springs eternal when you’re running a bill,” Rep. Foote answered, “but unfortunately, the bill was party-line in the House; there were no Republicans who supported it.”

“If there’s no Republican support [in the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee],” he continued, “then the bill will not pass.”

“Nothing will pass without bipartisan support,” he added.

Although the Longmont City Council voted to support Rep. Foote’s bill last night, other communities all over the state have rejected the bill.

In a report released last month, the Colorado Counties Inc. (CCI) recorded its opposition to the bill, stating that the current setback “has been working and should not be changed.” CCI, an association that advises county commissioners in the state, is governed by officials across Colorado, from Delta County, to Larimer County, to Otero County.

On Monday evening, Garfield County’s Board of County Commissioners voted to oppose the bill, with Commissioner John Martin (R) recognizing that it “takes 60 percent of the voting members of the CCI to take a position.” Commissioner Mike Samson (R) noted that COGCC Director Matt Lepore – and Moffat and Rio Blanco counties – had concerns about the measure as well.

With their vote of opposition, the Garfield County Commissioners joined a large contingent of state legislators who have criticized the bill in recent weeks, pointing out the extensive regulations that already exist, the mineral rights that may be threatened, and the economic benefits the oil and natural gas industry delivers to the state.

“This bill would drastically expand setbacks and turn pro-energy communities into checker boards of prohibited areas, resulting in even more energy sector layoffs and massive losses in land values for property owners,” Rep. Steve Humphrey (R-Eaton) said in a statement earlier this month.

“Make no mistake, this back-door effort to move toward statewide fracking ban is at the bequest of radical environmentalist groups and special interest groups,” he warned.

“In Weld County, if you increase setbacks any more than they are now, it would ban drilling,” Rep. Lori Saine (R-Firestone) said last week, when the bill was debated in the House. “Weld County does not want your bill,” she told Rep. Foote.

The bill has drawn sharp criticism from the business community as well. “[T]his is essentially the legislature directing an agency that makes decisions based on data and science to issue, [in] effect, a ban in certain instances,” argued Mike Kopp, head of Colorado Concern, a consortium of business leaders in the state.

Colorado Oil and Gas Association President and Chief Executive Dan Haley noted the current setback distances were “more than tripled” recently “after an exhaustive stakeholder process.” “We see no reason to have this debate now, with only weeks left in the legislative session, when the science does not justify changing the standard,” Haley stated.

The current setback is “working well,” Colorado Petroleum Council Executive Director Tracee Bentley agreed.

Correction: The original post misstated Bonnie Finley’s political affiliation. She is a Republican, not a Democrat. 

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