SB-181 Supporters Promised It Was ‘Not a Moratorium.’ Now They’re Using It to Push Drilling Bans.
Less than a month after Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed into law legislation overhauling how the state regulates the oil and natural gas industry, its effects are already being seen in development curtailments that the bill’s proponents promised wouldn’t happen.
During the long and somewhat tumultuous debate over SB-181, its supporters were consistent in their claims of what the bill would and would not do.
Time and time again, SB-181’s sponsors took issue with the characterization that a development moratorium would be enacted after the bill’s passage—even though the legislation gives regulatory bodies like the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) and local governments unprecedented influence over oil and gas policy. In fact, House Speaker KC Becker scolded SB-181 detractors during one of the bill’s first committee hearings for what she considered disingenuous criticism:
“What in the bill is going to make those jobs go away? Where in the bill is it written moratorium? Where in the bill is it written ban? Person after person testified, this is not a moratorium, this is not a ban, this is an option for local governments to use local control if they so choose and it is a simple, minor word change to the COGCC mission, to things that are promoting the industry. You are going to regulate the industry in a manner that protects the state welfare and the environment.”
Proponents promised there’d be no ban.
Both Becker and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg were quoted in numerous articles during the SB-181 debate stating adamantly that the bill would not lead to a de facto ban.
“Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, one of the sponsors of the bill, said it does not amount to a de facto ban on operations, as industry defenders allege.” – Colorado Politics (4/5/19)
“’There’s nothing in the bill about setbacks,’ [House Speaker Becker] said. ‘There’s nothing in the bill one way or another that talks about moratoriums or bans.’”- Greeley Tribune (3/23/19)
“Senate Majority Leader Stephen Fenberg went on the offensive to dispel fears before Tuesday’s testimony even began. The bill doesn’t ban drilling anywhere or give local governments the authority to place moratoriums on drilling activities, he said.” – Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (3/7/19)
Moratoria are already in the works.
Activist groups and local governments apparently haven’t gotten the memo.
In the wake of SB-181’s signing — during which Polis said, “with the signing of this bill, it is our hope that the oil and gas wars that have enveloped our state are over” — we’ve seen at least three local jurisdictions move toward enacting their own their own moratoria.
Cities are taking advantage of the lag time needed to implement some of the more complicated rulemakings which, as EID pointed out, could take several months and even years to complete. The bill stipulates that during this time, the COGCC director is essentially able to hold up any permits as he or she sees fit. Since the rules are about to change, cities argue, it doesn’t make sense to allow for permits ahead of time if they won’t adhere to the new regulations.
Before SB-181 was even signed, Adams County commissioners voted unanimously to adopt a six-month oil and gas moratorium. At the time, the Colorado Petroleum Council pointed out that these types of actions will most likely become more common thanks to the unintended consequences of SB-181.
“’Adams County’s commissioners have just given Coloradans a glimpse of the consequences that Senate Bill 181 will have in the state,’ said Ben Marter, Colorado Petroleum Council spokesman. ‘Again and again, proponents of this bill have explicitly denied any suggestions that the measure would permit municipalities and counties to do exactly what has happened in Adams County today.’”
As the Denver Post reported, the city of Lafayette extended its existing moratorium on drilling within city limits mere hours after Gov. Polis signed SB-181. Meanwhile, Broomfield is set to discuss a temporary ban next week while it considers which new rules to adopt now that SB-181 has broadened the city council’s regulatory purview.
Activists are demanding to go even further.
And while activist groups were somewhat more subdued during the legislative debate over SB-181, they are now embracing its after effects.
Late last month, 350.org called on its members and supporters to implore the COGCC to institute a 2,500-foot setback and immediate statewide moratorium on oil and gas permitting while the regulatory body developed new rulemakings. No matter that Coloradans overwhelmingly rejected a required 2,500-foot setback by voting down Proposition 112 in 2018 by a 10-point margin.
And 350.org just released an “Empower Your Community Toolkit” aiming to help communities navigate the processes for getting their city councils to impose local bans on oil and gas development. The toolkit also pushes for a moratorium until rulemakings are completed:
“Until more protective rules are in place, communities facing oil and gas permits may want to pass local moratoria on oil and gas permitting and activities until rules are drafted and adopted. Oil and gas operators have rushed to submit record numbers of permits ahead of new regulations. Passing a moratorium helps to protect communities from rushed permitting and allows them to make smart, strategic decisions about how to implement new rules and regulations.”
Pro-business group Vital for Colorado also notes that the toolkit includes talking points that call on Polis, Attorney General Phil Weiser and the COGCC to “keep fossil fuels in the ground” and “stop issuing permits.” Vital’s Senior Strategist Rich Coolidge noted that these efforts are not in good faith to promote safety and address environmental concerns, but an attempt to shut down Colorado’s oil and gas industry.
“They only support bans or de facto bans, which Colorado voters have rejected and were promised over and over again would not happen under SB-181 at the state or local level. If these groups are allowed to disrupt oil and gas permitting following the passage of SB-181, the Polis Administration and other supporters of the new law will be responsible for the economic damage this causes.”
Colorado oil and gas regulations have a long road ahead as the COGCC and local communities adapt to their new authority. But it’s clear that activists are going to try to exploit as many provisions of SB-181 as they can to ban development in the state. The repeated assurances from Colorado’s lawmakers and officials that this wouldn’t happen will be put to the test.