A bipartisan group of civic and business leaders is coming together to fix a problem that politicians are unable or unwilling to solve: Getting politics out of the regulation of oil and natural gas development.
Our coalition has introduced a ballot measure to change the makeup of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission: From a group of political appointees controlled by the governor to an independently appointed board of scientists, engineers and other experts who will act impartially and free from partisan politics.
The initiative is modeled after Amendments Y and Z, which passed in 2018 with overwhelming support from Colorado voters. Just like Y and Z removed political bias from the process of drawing legislative districts, the time has come to take political bias out of oil and gas regulation.
Our ballot measure would:
- Create the Colorado Independent Oil and Gas Board, comprised of nine experts, with three unaffiliated, three Democratic and three Republican members. The governor and legislative leaders would submit names into a larger pool of qualified applicants, but a panel of retired judges would make the appointments. This ensures no single official or political party has control or undue influence over the board.
- Require members of the independent board to have expertise in science, engineering, public health and other relevant fields. Nominees would be screened for conflicts of interest: No lobbyists, political insiders, or officials with groups that advocate for or against oil and gas development.
- Leave in place changes made last year by Senate Bill 181, which dramatically tightened oil and gas regulations. Going forward, the independent board would ensure regulations are feasible, reasonable and balanced. This will preserve legitimate environmental safeguards while preventing unreasonable and unworkable regulations that are simply intended to stop energy development.
- Codify critical environmental safeguards, like ground-water monitoring, and make permanent critical public safety rules, like flow-line requirements that followed the Firestone tragedy. Local control would be expanded to allow increased setbacks, air monitoring and public safety certifications that are reasonable, feasible and balanced. Local governments can take real steps to protect communities but cannot pass thinly veiled bans.
In short, balance and independence would be the new coin of the realm.
Our coalition has spent six months developing this proposal, in response to the failed implementation of SB-181 and the refusal of elected officials to listen to voters.
In 2018, Coloradans decisively rejected a ballot measure which would have used 2,500-foot setbacks to effectively ban drilling across most of the state. The measure was intensely political, supported by groups with a huge ideological bias against oil and gas.
Voters sent a clear message: The oil and gas sector should be closely regulated to protect the environment, but also allowed to grow because it creates jobs and generates tax revenue for schools, among other important contributions. To strike that balance, voters want regulations based on science and engineering, not politics.
But the implementation of SB-181 delivered the opposite. Despite promises that the “oil and gas wars … are over” and that permitting would continue “business as usual,” the rollout of the new law triggered almost a dozen local moratoriums and a 59 percent drop in state drilling approvals. Anti-oil and gas ballot measures were also supposed to go away, but they’re back again this year.
Under SB-181, a politically appointed commission and politically appointed regulators have put a whole sector of the state economy in a chokehold. It’s not about tougher standards, which energy firms are willing to meet. It’s about a law that gave too much control to a handful of officials, hand-picked by the governor, and how easily that control can be abused — not just today, but in the future under Republican governors as well as Democratic governors.
To protect public health and preserve the business climate in Colorado, we need certainty, not wild swings in regulatory policy depending on which political party controls state government.
The need to fix this problem has become even more urgent with Russia’s price war against U.S. oil producers. When Russia relents, U.S. drilling will recover. But ask yourself: How much energy investment will come to Colorado when the permitting process is unstable and completely politicized?
The idea that some questions of public policy are too crucial — and too easily swayed by partisanship — to be left under the complete control of governors and legislatures is not new. Gov. Jared Polis, for example, is a vocal supporter of Amendments Y and Z. Much earlier in his political career, the governor championed the creation of the state’s Independent Ethics Commission.
Our goal is simple: To make energy regulation not political, more balanced, and more driven by science. It’s what the voters want and, until recently, it’s how we have always done business in Colorado.
We expect opposition from anti-oil and gas activists, whose policies are at war with balance. We look forward to that debate — and it’s a debate we will win in a state that has long valued thoughtful, balanced policy making, and rejected virulent partisanship and ideological extremism.
Diane Schwenke is president and CEO of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce. Dave Davia is executive vice president and CEO of the Colorado Association of Mechanical and Plumbing Contractors.