Op-ed: Rep. Mike Foote: State cannot promote and regulate oil industry

Rep. Mike Foote: State cannot promote and regulate oil industry

Rep. Mike Foote

Whenever he met with his Soviet counterpart for another round of arms reduction talks, Ronald Reagan could be counted on to repeat the Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify.”

We must do the same with our oil and gas industry, and also with the agency that is tasked with monitoring it.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is really the only agency regulating oil and gas extraction in Colorado. The oil and gas industry has managed to exempt itself from a slew of federal regulations, and the COGCC has worked diligently over the years to expand its reach, making it harder and harder for city councils and county commissioners to take action on their own to address citizen concerns.

Because we have all our regulatory eggs in the COGCC’s basket, it is imperative that we hold the COGCC to the highest standards and make sure it is holding the industry accountable.

Right now, the COGCC has a dual mission: to promote the extraction of oil and gas and to regulate the industry doing the extraction. The mission is inherently flawed. One agency cannot both promote and regulate the industry equally well. In practice, this has led to the COGCC favoring the industry.

When you consider the additional fact that COGCC commissioners are allowed to work for the oil and gas industry at the same time they are promoting and regulating the industry, it is easy to see why many Coloradans lack confidence that the COGCC is protecting their health, safety, and welfare.

In Longmont, we have seen firsthand how the COGCC’s dual mission is implemented. After a long process of citizen and industry input, the City Council updated its zoning rules for oil and gas drilling. The new rules represented a thoughtful balance between property owners and citizens that some thought did not even go far enough in its protections. Within days, however, Longmont was slapped with a lawsuit — not by any companies that disliked the new rules, or by mineral rights owners, but by the COGCC itself.

That’s right — the State of Colorado sued Longmont because its city council tried to address its own citizens’ public health and safety concerns.

The COGCC justified its lawsuit by citing its dual mission and its goal to “reduce waste” in oil and gas production. The agency claims it must help the industry drill for every last drop of oil it possibly can. For example, when the Longmont City Council decided oil and gas production should be at least 150 feet away from certain stream corridors (which is 150 feet more than the state requires), the COGCC argued that the extra distance would lead to a “waste” of resources and therefore cannot be allowed.

The oil and gas industry has a lot of friends and resources. As we see at the Capitol every day, it does a fine enough job promoting its interests. Colorado does not need a state agency, funded by our tax dollars, doing the same thing. Instead, we need an agency that will stand up for public health and safety in a robust way and recognize the expertise of local officials in addressing land use issues and the concerns of their citizens.

I’m sponsoring a bill, HB13-1269, which will restore trust in the COGCC process by making sure its commissioners are not being paid by the industry they are tasked to regulate, and that they consider public health and safety first and foremost.

We need to prevent the reality, or even the perception, that the fox is guarding the henhouse.