Profits over people: Colorado fossil-fuel industry defeats health and safety bill in state Senate

Photo: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

A simple, seemingly uncontroversial change to state law became the latest reform proposal to be crushed by Colorado’s powerful oil and gas industry.

House Bill 1071, passed out of the lower chamber of Colorado’s General Assembly last month, is as short as bills come — its full text is barely one page long.

The legislation’s key provision would insert one simple sentence of clarification into state law, affirming that Colorado’s oil and gas resources must be developed “in a manner consistent with protection of public health, safety, and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources.”

That’s it. No bans, no new taxes, no setback limits, no specific regulations at all — just a straightforward declaration that profits for Colorado’s multibillion-dollar oil and gas industry shouldn’t come at the cost of the health and safety of its people.

But this seemingly uncontroversial principle was a bridge too far for the state Senate’s Agriculture, Natural Resources, & Energy Committee, where two Democrats joined six Republicans in voting to kill HB 1071 on Wednesday.

In a Republican-controlled Senate, this outcome was never really in doubt. But Colorado’s powerful oil and gas industry left nothing to chance, lobbying heavily for the bill’s defeat both among legislators at the Capitol and in the court of public opinion.

Their efforts included an 18-page “analysis” distributed to lawmakers and local media, which purported to “debunk” claims of adverse health effects caused by oil and gas operations. In fact, the report, which does not disclose its authorship and contains no new scientific research, simply cherry-picks favorable data while ignoring years of independent, peer-reviewed studies that link proximity to fossil-fuel activity to low birth weights, birth defects, elevated cancer risk, and more.

At a hearing before Wednesday’s vote, committee chair Jerry Sonnenberg was similarly dismissive of public complaints, repeatedly cutting off witnesses who mentioned recent explosions caused by industry operations, arguing they weren’t relevant to the discussion.

Activists and Sonnenberg’s fellow legislators were baffled by his decision. At least four people were killed by explosions and fires linked to oil and gas activity in 2017, including two people in a Firestone home explosion caused by a severed flowline from a nearby gas well.

State Sen. Rhonda Fields, who voted for the bill, said she was “absolutely appalled at the way our witnesses were treated,” and later blasted Sonnenberg for his conduct on Twitter.

According to campaign finance data from the Colorado Secretary of State, Sonnenberg has received thousands of dollars in direct contributions from oil and gas interests during his time in office — including from Anadarko Petroleum, the operator of the well linked to the fatal Firestone explosion.

An uphill battle

HB 1071 is an attempt to formally amend state law to reflect the argument made in a long-running commonly known as the Martinez case, which is set to be heard by the Colorado Supreme Court within the next year. The suit, filed by environmental activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, seeks to force state regulators to adhere to a higher standard of health and safety protection through a stricter interpretation of current law.

But Wednesday’s outcome yet again demonstrated the extreme mismatch in resources between the opposite sides of Colorado’s oil and gas debate. To enact even the most basic reforms, a loose, amateurish coalition of impacted residents, municipal officials, and environmentalists must fight an uphill battle against a $31 billion industry with a small army of lobbyists and PR professionals, and many of the state’s most powerful politicians squarely in its pocket.

Fossil-fuel interests are by far the largest contributors to GOP super PACs in Colorado, with more than $594,000 already funneled into legislative and gubernatorial expenditure committees in the 2018 cycle. The Denver Post reported last year that the industry has spent at least $80 million since 2014 bankrolling influence campaigns and astroturf groups like Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development.

That may sound like a lot of money, but for the oil and gas industry, it’s pocket change. Anadarko, despite facing several lawsuits over its role in last April’s Firestone explosion — which killed Mark Martinez and his brother-in-law Joey Irwin, and severely burned Mark’s wife Erin, who is still undergoing medical treatment — reported a profit of $976 million in the fourth quarter of 2017 alone.