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The oil and gas industry holds a rally outside of the Colorado Capitol on March 5, 2019, ahead of the first committee hearing for Senate Bill 181. The legislation would add significant new regulation to the industry and is being brought by Democrats. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The oil and gas industry is spending big money as it scrambles to halt a fast-moving bill aimed at giving state and local governments more power to regulate drilling.

The campaign to influence lawmakers includes a misleading TV commercial designed to generate public opposition to the bill and the hiring of new high-powered lobbyists at the Capitol.

Other organizations are pushing for and against the measure on social media and other online platforms, likely making it the most expensive lobbying effort in the 2019 legislative session.

All the attention is focused on Senate Bill 181. The legislation — which is nearing a vote in the House after passage in the Senate — is the most far-reaching overhaul of oil and gas regulations in more than a decade. Advocates say it’s long overdue, but the industry argues it goes too far and could hurt the state’s economy.

The talking points are evident in the efforts to drive opposition among Colorado residents. The American Petroleum Institute, a trade organization representing the oil and gas industry, has spent at least $273,000 to air a TV ad opposing the legislation, according to a review of Federal Communications Commission records, which don’t include Denver station contracts.

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The 30-second commercial still appearing on local television stations urges people to call their state lawmaker, and it falsely claims that the measure would shut down oil and gas production. The institute also is paying for advertising on Facebook through Energy Citizens and Energy Nation.

So far, the effort’s impact is limited. The bill’s sponsors made a few changes in the Senate to make the bill more amenable to the oil and gas industry. But the measure is still moving forward with Democratic support and not enough Republican opposition to stop it.

Ben Marter, a spokesman for the Colorado affiliate of the American Petroleum Institute, said the campaign is needed because the bill was written behind closed doors and moved quickly when first introduced.

The industry organized rallies at the Capitol to oppose the measure and even bought lunch for oil and gas workers who came to testify against the measure. Marter said “time will tell” whether it’s effective, but “the groundswell of opposition — bipartisan opposition — to this bill from all around the state has been remarkable.”

The high-dollar effort is not new for the oil and gas industry and its affiliates, which spent nearly $4.2 million to lobby state lawmakers from July 2014 through February 2019, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of lobbying data from the secretary of state’s office. Spending peaked in fiscal year 2015, when an appointed task force recommended changes to regulations.

Of that total, 15 companies accounted for about $3.4 million in lobbying spending with Noble Energy, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, and Anadarko Petroleum respectively ranking at the top.

The industry rushed to hire more lobbyists as bill advanced

The legislation would prioritize health and safety considerations, leading to a host of new state restrictions, and give local governments more authority to limit development in sensitive areas through increased setbacks and similar regulations. Gov. Jared Polis and top Democratic lawmakers at the helm in both chambers back the legislation.

The day the bill debuted on the Senate floor for debate, well-known Democratic political consultants Michael Stratton and Doug Friednash registered to lobby for the American Petroleum Institute.

The attorneys at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a prominent law firm with a significant lobbying practice, won’t have to file a report of their income or bills lobbied until April 15. Stratton is a longtime Democratic political consultant. Friednash rejoined the firm after a stint working as chief of staff to former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.

The state’s lobbying records also show that Carrie Anne Hackenberger registered as a lobbyist March 20, listing herself as an employee of American Petroleum Institute. She’s the daughter of Micki Hackenberger, president of the lobbying and political firm Axiom Politics.

MORE: Lobbying is big money in Colorado. But the spending is difficult to track.

Other oil and gas companies moved to add lobbyists to help influence the legislation, too.

  • Two employees of Noble Energy registered March 19, joining three other in-house lobbyists and a half-dozen firms and individuals who also represent the company.
  • Anadarko hired former state Rep. Gil Romero, who reported earning $12,000 in January and February. The company also paid Brandeberry-McKenna Public Affairs $50,000 those first two months of the legislative session before breaking ties, records show.
  • Extraction Oil & Gas, one of the companies with the most impacts from the legislation, hired Collective Strategies lobbying firm. The company also is represented by Axiom and five of its lobbyists.

“There were so many lobbyists hired at the last minute, and I can only imagine how much money they made for 24 hours of work,” said state Sen. Steve Fenberg, the bill’s sponsor and the chamber’s Democratic leader, ahead of the bill debate. “It just shows how much money is on the line, and how much money (the oil and gas industry) can spend — and it goes to why we haven’t had progress in so many years.”

The full cost of how much the industry is spending on lobbying this session remains unclear, but it’s not the only industry tracking the legislation.

Only eight of the 44 clients and 16 of the 42 lobbyists that reported working on Senate Bill 181 are tied to the oil and gas industry, according to the latest state records. But those numbers could change dramatically next month. The bill was introduced March 1 and reports for this month aren’t due until April 15.

The other organizations aligned against the measure include agriculture groups, real estate interests, Douglas County and even Colorado Christian University. Anadarko lists its position as seeking to amend the bill, while Noble Energy says it’s monitoring the measure.

On the other side, Longmont and Northglenn lobbied in support of the legislation, joining a handful of environmental groups who registered to back the measure.

House Speaker KC Becker, left, and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, both Boulder Democrats, discuss their oil and gas regulation legislation. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The oil and gas debate is raging online, too

Other organizations are working online to influence opinions about the legislation with paid advertising and social media campaigns.

A nonprofit group called Bridging Energy Solutions Today! Colorado, or BEST Colorado, formed March 3 with Democratic political veteran Steve Welchert listed as registered agent and former state lawmaker Mike Feeley, of the Brownstein firm, as the incorporator.

The group is running numerous ads on Facebook this month suggesting that the legislation needs to be amended to create “a professional commission” to regulate oil and gas. The ads carry messages such as “Let’s Clear the Air,” “Bridge the Gap,” “Save Our Schools” and “Build a Bridge to Renewable Energy.”

As a nonprofit, the group won’t have to report the sources of its money.

Another campaign tied to ExxonMobil is encouraging people to contact Polis and ask him to reject the bill, which it misleadingly calls a moratorium.

Two organizations that back Democrats — Conservation Colorado and ProgressNow — are running Facebook ads supporting SB181.

Garrett Garner-Wells, a Conservation Colorado spokesman, said his organization’s spending doesn’t amount to much and certainly is “orders of magnitude less than what we are seeing from oil and gas.”

The goal of the ad campaign, he said, is to help people encourage supporters to have their voices heard.

“This is a way we can bring the Capitol to the people of Colorado, instead of vice versa,” he said.

Fenberg, the bill’s sponsor, said the efforts from opponents — particularly the TV ad — make an impact, but in this case it doesn’t represent the entire picture.

“Those type of pressures always impact politicians and legislators and frankly public opinion,” he said. “We’ve done polling on this — public opinion is with us.”

Updated 1 p.m. March 28, 2019: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the city of Longmont hired a lobbyist to support the oil and gas bill. The Longmont city manager is the registered lobbyist.

Updated at 3:30 p.m. March 29, 2019: An earlier version of this story said Commerce City had lobbied to support Senate Bill 181. The city’s lobbyist, Geoffrey Wilson, said he said he incorrectly filed a report saying the city supported the legislation, when the city was merely monitoring it. On Monday, the City Council’s legislative committee took a position opposing the bill, thought there are no written or digital records of the meeting to indicate why the position changed.

John Frank

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.

Sandra Fish

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @fishnette