Fracking dominates the debate at Capitol

Federal vs. state oversight focus of hearing in Denver

Durango Herald | Joe Hanel

May 2, 2012
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DENVER – Washington came to Colorado on Wednesday as a debate rages about who should regulate natural-gas and oil drilling.

The House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a field hearing at the state Capitol to decry proposed federal oversight of hydraulic fracturing. Later in the day, state representatives wrestled with a Republican bill to punish cities and counties that stand in the way of drilling as well as a Democratic bill to strengthen state rules about fracking.

By the end of the day, not much had changed, but positions were clear: Many Republicans and the energy industry prefer regulation by the states, while Democrats and industry critics also want local and federal oversight.

U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, joined the hearing and said he saw common ground among the industry’s supporters and critics.

“We want to make sure that it’s safe. We recognize the need to be able to create jobs and be able to create energy certainty in the United States of America, and to be able to create that commonsense win-win,” Tipton said.

However, the two sides didn’t agree on much.

Bruce Baizel of Durango, a lawyer for Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project, was one of about a dozen people to testify in the congressional hearing.

“Our view is that we see a need to coordinate regulation of hydraulic fracturing at all levels – federal, state and local,” Baizel said.

States should be the primary regulator, but unless they show they are effective, local governments and the feds need to step in, he said.

On the opposite side, state Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, told congressmen the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has been effective at regulating the industry and promoting good relationships with local communities, and the feds should stay out.

“I can assure you that a one-size-fits-all regulatory structure at the federal level will be devastating to the energy industry in Colorado,” Sonnenberg said.

U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., questioned that.

“Do Coloradans react differently to contaminated water? Does the physiology of a Coloradan react differently to carcinogens?” Holt said.

Sonnenberg answered that different areas of the country have different topography and soil types that are best regulated at the state level.

But closer to home, Sonnenberg wants local governments to stay out of gas regulation. He is sponsoring a state bill to withhold severance tax money from cities and counties that adopt drilling moratoriums. However, the bill is on the verge of failing.

Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, tried to salvage it by rewriting it to deny tax money only to local governments that permanently ban gas drilling – a circumstance that Brown thinks will never happen.

But Brown’s amendment failed on a 5-8 vote in the House Agriculture Committee, and Sonnenberg had a final vote delayed for the second time this week.

He’s just postponing the inevitable, said Brown, who does not support the bill in its current form.

“I wish he’d just kill it and be done with it,” Brown said.

Later in the day, Senate Democrats planned to advance a bill to tighten state rules on fracking. However, it has little chance of passing the GOP-led House.

Tagged with: natural gas, house subcommittee on energy and mineral resources, fracking, colorado

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