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With Democrats in power and a new governor in office, what is the future of drilling in Colorado?

Posted at 5:17 PM, Jan 10, 2019

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DENVER -- The future of oil and gas in Colorado is a matter of the moment.

Oil wells popping up all along the Front Range have already ignited a firestorm. They have been the targets of protests, lawsuits, and a statewide ballot measure, and now, with Democrats in power and a new governor in office, there is an expected push for new drilling regulations inside the dome.

But what those regulations should look like is very much a matter of perspective.

Activists want a moratorium

Colorado Rising was the grassroots group behind Proposition 112 -- the statewide ballot measure voters rejected by large margins to increase the setback rules for new wells.

Despite losing at the ballot box, activists said they are ready to go back to battle. And with the help from former state House lawmaker and civil rights attorney, Joe Salazar, who is the new executive director of Colorado Rising.

"Understanding all the sausage making in terms of how policy creation occurs, being about to go into court and fight for communities against the oil and gas industry. That's what I bring to the table," he said. "Proposition 112 – that was just the beginning."

Salazar has already hit the ground running as the group's new director. He organized a protest on the steps of the state Capitol during the first day of the legislative session and said the group plans to hold lawmakers and Gov. Polis accountable to act.

"The environment and climate control is the quintessential moment of our time," said Salazar. "It is a dirty industry and it is affecting so many people, but there needs to be some type of assessment done of all the health studies that are out there."

Colorado Rising is calling for a drilling moratorium until a comprehensive health assessment is done and has already sent a letter to Polis with their demands.

"As Colorado Rising, we're going to push him as hard as we can," said Salazar. "And if that means that we have to bring another ballot initiative in 2020, that's exactly what we're going to do."

Local control

Polis has kept to his campaign promises and said he supports the idea of local control when it comes to regulating new drilling. Right now, the state, through the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, has the final say on approving new drilling permits.

"Move our state towards a system where local governments will have more of a say over what happens in their neighborhoods," Polis said following his inauguration Tuesday. "We have more tools for homeowners to make sure that their quality of life or health or safety won't be sacrificed because of oil and gas activity."

Communities have control

So where does the oil and gas industry stand?

Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said local governments already have a significant amount of local control.

"And many of the communities where we operate will tell you right now that they have the 'local control' they need," Haley said in an email responding to Denver7's questions. "For the communities who desire a greater level of local authority within the statewide regulatory framework that already exists in Colorado, we’re open to those discussions and look forward to a positive exchange of ideas."

As far as possible solutions, Haley noted that oil and natural gas industry is critical to Colorado's economy and said the industry adheres to some of the strictest regulations in the country.

"We are heavily regulated, and while sometimes it’s useful to add or alter regulations, as was the case with the school setback regulations that were just passed by the state, there is always a need to balance the objectives of such regulatory changes to make sure they aren’t set up to do the impossible, and then either fail in function or shutdown businesses," Haley said.

Activists aren't sold on local control

Salazar, with Colorado Rising, said the group is not sold on the idea of local control.

"I'm not so certain that goes far enough," he said. "It just seems like a punt to me – that we're just going to punt it over to this particular municipality, and then we're going to wash our hands of it as a state. No, we can't do that."

While the debate around oil and gas rages on. One thing is clear. When it comes to the future of drilling in Colorado, all eyes are on the state Capitol.