Updated: March 21, 2014 at 7:16 am
DENVER - Rep. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, asked lawmakers Thursday to fund a study on the health impacts of the onslaught of drilling and hydrolic fracturing close to front-range communities.
"Many Colorado families that live near oil and gas sites are concerned, they're very concerned," Ginal said. "They want to be heard and I'm listening."
Ginal said scientific data about potential health effects prompted five communities to vote to either ban or delay further oil and gas exploration in their jurisdictions.
"House Bill 1297 will finally bring some clarity to this debate about the safety of oil and gas extraction close to where people live," she said.
The House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee heard several hours of testimony about the bill from industry experts opposed to the bill and residents affected by nearby oil and gas exploration who urged further study. In the end, the committee delayed a vote until the next meeting.
The study would cost an estimated $200,000 a year for the next three years to implement.
Republicans on the committee said further study was unnecessary and that the bill was slanted against the industry.
"It seems to me that there is a broad, in-depth, unvaried opinion on this question already in the scientific literature, specifically when we look at peer-reviewed studies. A well-regulated industry does not pose public health threats to our citizens," said Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch. "Is this an instance where we have this body of science out there that indicates there is no threat ... trying to find a different outcome that fits the scenario that people might want it to fit?"
The debate Thursday over Ginal's bill is just one example of how the oil and gas industry has found itself front-and-center this political season.
The issue has been boiling since 2012 when voters in Longmont changed the city charter to prohibit fracking. The Colorado Attorney General and oil and gas companies subsequently sued the city saying regulation of natural resources is limited to state-level oversight.
In 2013, four other front-range jurisdictions followed Longmont, holding elections on the issue and either banning or putting a moratorium on fracking.
And while courts are poised to decide the issue, the public may get the chance first.
Two groups have introduced 16 ballot initiatives that deal mostly with granting local-governments control over the regulation of oil and gas development. Some introduced Thursday deal with set-back requirements from housing developments, schools and hospitals for oil and gas operators.
A well-organized opposition to those ballot initiatives is popping up, led by some of the state's largest oil and gas producers.
An issue committee was launched in January to oppose the ballot initiatives. The group, Protecting Colorado's Environment, Economy and Energy Independence, has already reserved $299,125 worth of TV ad time on KMGH Channel 7between September and November.
Rick Ridder, spokesman for the group that has filed all but one of the petitions to put local control on the November ballot, said he expects a long battle.
Ridder said they are in the process of winnowing their petitions down to the strongest. The Secretary of State's Office must first set a title and the language of the initiative and then, in theory, Ridder's group could begin collecting the roughly 97,000 signatures required to put the issue on the ballot.
But Ridder said he expects the language to be appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court.
"We're in the middle of a process that will last six to eight weeks," Ridder said. "It all comes out of citizen's sentiments that they have a lack of ability to control what goes on with oil and gas drilling in their communities, in their neighborhoods, close to schools or close to hospitals. This is a citizen response to the activities the oil and gas drilling."
Jon Haubert, director of communications for Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, said his relatively young group is focused on educating the public about fracking issues. But the group did come out against ballot measures that could mean crippling local policies for the oil and gas industry, he said.
"It's just not possible or practical for hundreds of local governments to enact differing standards for the protection of natural resources, such as clean air and clean water, which are of statewide significance," Haubert said in a statement last month when the first of the local-control ballot titles was filed.
McNulty and Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, introduced a ballot initiative of their own on Thursday, one that would bar the five communities with fracking bans or moratoriums from receiving oil and gas tax dollars, specifically severance tax.
"If you adopt Sierra Club-type energy bans that hurt our communities and our schools, don't expect energy revenues to pick up your tab," McNulty said in an e-mail announcing the ballot initiative.
All of the ballot titles and early campaigning may be for naught, as there's still rumored to be a bill introduced late this legislative session that would deal with the local control issue.
In the meantime, Ginal's bill to study the health impacts of oil and gas has a long road ahead of it, through the House and the Senate and eventually to the governor's desk.
Contact Megan Schrader