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Democrats hint at broad plans for oil and gas regulation in Colorado, but industry and activists await details

Erin Martinez, whose husband and brother were killed in the 2017 explosion of their home in Firestone, called for better regulations. But, she said, “I have no desire to destroy an industry.”

Erin Martinez, whose husband and brother were killed when their Firestone home exploded in 2017 because of a leak from a nearby oil and gas well, lobbies for tougher oil and gas regulations at an event Feb. 28, 2019, at the Colorado Capitol. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Gov. Jared Polis and top Democratic state lawmakers on Thursday laid out broad plans for their promised updates to Colorado oil and gas regulations, but left the industry and activists awaiting the all-important details of a bill that has yet to be introduced.

“The legislation we will be introducing in the coming days is not window dressing,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat. “But it also is not an attack on an industry.”

The outline of the legislation they plan to introduce includes:

“We’re waiting to see the actual bill,” said Matt Dempsey, an oil and gas industry consultant. “All of this has already been previewed at town halls across the state by various state senators. So, the next step is to actually see the bill.”

Joe Salazar, executive director of the group Colorado Rising, said they couldn’t comment on the bill at length without seeing it. Colorado Rising was behind Proposition 112, the failed 2018 ballot initiative that would have increased the distance oil and gas operations could be from homes to 2,500 feet from 500.

“We have not seen any final language of the bill discussed at today’s press conference,” Salazar, a former lawmaker, said in a written statement. “As such, we have no position on any possible bill that may be brought. What we will say, however, is that families (Republicans, Democrats and independents alike) are being affected by this abusive industry and we are on the brink of a climate catastrophe. We are hoping Colorado will do its part to protect our environment and people.”

Fenberg said the legislation would be introduced in the coming days, but did not elaborate on the exact timing of the measure’s release. The oil and gas regulation bill will likely be the most watched of the 2019 legislative session in Colorado.

House Speaker KC Becker, left, and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, both Boulder Democrats, speak to reporters on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, about their oil and gas regulation legislation. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“Our intention here was to write a bill that solves the major issues associated with oil and gas development and its impact on people,” Fenberg said. “We believe that’s what this bill accomplishes when it’s signed into law. We wrote the bill. The industry didn’t write the bill. Activists didn’t write the bill.”

His statement was a nod to the fact that lawmakers are trying to thread the needle with their new rules. If they go too far, they run the risk of political fallout from the deep-pocketed oil and gas industry. If they don’t do enough, activists could attempt to pass another ballot initiative to tighten regulations on the industry.

Polis said Colorado’s oil and gas rules and safety mechanisms “have simply not kept up” with the advances in the oil and gas industry in the past decade.

“When you introduce heavy industrial operations into densely populated areas, conflicts occur,” Polis said. “We need a legal framework to solve these conflicts.”

He added: “The time to act is now.”

Still, Polis admitted the legislation wasn’t the ultimate solution. “We know that this bill won’t solve every single issue related to the development of oil and gas.”

Gov. Jared Polis speak to reporters on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, about Democrats oil and gas regulation legislation. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Some other highlights from what was unveiled Thursday:

— The Colorado Oil and Gas Commission would be able to explore alternate drilling sites under the prospective bill and take into account how large operations would impact populated areas

— The commission would have to disclose all pipeline and flow line locations

— Provisions to limit forced pooling

“She knows how broken the system is”

In addition to the policy introduction at Thursday’s news conference was the appearance of Erin Martinez, who was seriously injured when her home in Firestone exploded in 2017, killing her husband, Mark Martinez, and brother, Joey Irwin.

The explosion was blamed on a cut flowline from a nearby gas well. She described the disaster publicly for the first time at Thursday’s event.

CBS4 segment, via YouTube.

“On the day of the explosion I remember being blown into the air and trapped between falling debris,” she said, recalling how her home was lifted off its foundation. “… My son had to crawl on his hands and knees through a tunnel to a window and make the decision to jump out and save his own life.”

She called for better regulations of the industry to prevent another tragedy like the one that impacted her family.

“Nobody should ever have to experience what my family has had to go through over these past almost two years,” she said. “I feel a direct responsibility to keep that from happening. … I have no desire to destroy an industry. Lots of good people depend on this industry for their livelihood. I respect that. However, with great tragedy should also come great change.”

Erin Martinez speaks at a news conference on Feb. 28, 2019. Denver7 via YouTube.

She added: “We need to have accuracy in the location of all oil and gas infrastructure.”

Martinez also briefly talked about the impact the 2017 explosion has had on her son, who had to crawl to safety from the blast. She said it’s been difficult to find a home where her family can feel safe, away from oil and gas.

When they moved after the explosion, they were promised their new house wasn’t close to drilling. Months later, however, she found oil and gas crews digging around just beyond her property line for a nearby abandoned well. It wound up being in her next-door neighbor’s backyard.

“Mark and Joey deserved better,” she said. “We all deserve better.”


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