Capitol Letters: Protecting Public Welfare

The thoughts and opinions expressed in this column are those of the columnist and may not necessarily be shared by the Longmont Observer. Additionally, Marcia Martin is writing this column as a resident of Longmont, not as a representative of the Longmont City Council.

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Colorado State Capitol (Photo by Karen Corliss/ Longmont Observer)

Around 6:00 p.m. on the evening of Tuesday, March 5 found me barreling north on I-25, hoping to reach the City Council chambers in Longmont by seven o’clock when the Council Meeting was scheduled to begin. I had dawdled in the Senate Gallery at the Capitol until the very last minute – captivated by the testimony from proponents and opponents of SB19-181, Protect Public Welfare Oil And Gas Operations, which was being heard in the Senate Transportation and Energy committee.

I had signed up to speak but wasn’t too disappointed that my name had not been called by the time I had to leave. Under the circumstances I could represent only myself, not the City of Longmont, because between the time the bill was introduced on February 28 and this first hearing on March 5, the Longmont City Council had not met to vote whether or not to throw the city’s support behind the bill.

Between 395 and 500 people had registered to testify, depending who I asked. People were walking and standing everywhere. Many wore work clothes bearing the logos of one mineral developer or another. The committee chambers were full. The several available overflow rooms were full. Some people had numbered chits that gave them a seat in one of the rooms – we were calling them “golden tickets.”

Listening to the hearing on SB19-181 from the Gallery of the State Senate.–Photo by Marcia Martin

Folks who gave up, realizing that their chances of being called before dinner-time were nil, generously left their tickets on the balcony rails for others to pick up and use to claim a seat. At last the Senate adjourned and the ticketless stragglers, I among them, were seated in the gallery of the main Senate chambers, where we could hear the proceedings over a loudspeaker and wait for our names to be called.

We had not missed much while wandering the halls. The Capitol Intranet had been down, probably on account of the unanticipated number of people trying to stream the hearing on their phones and laptops. For a while the Committee had waited on the technical difficulties, so the first panel of four to be called were just beginning their testimony when the Sargeants at Arms opened the Senate gallery to us.

The first recital I heard was that of Erin Martinez. Erin is one of the survivors of the Firestone house explosion of April 17, 2017. She and her son were in the house at the time of the explosion, but survived. Her husband and his brother-in-law were killed. A daughter was at an after-school activity and was not involved in the accident.

Erin proved her great courage as she spoke. There were no tears or recriminations as she told her story in a straightforward, just-the-facts manner. She was not subjected to the usual time limit, so we heard her full tale. We heard about the strange behavior of not one but two gas water heaters in her basement in the days before the explosion. Fugitive gas, like what had leaked into the Martinez basement, lacks the characteristic odor added to domestic fuel gas for safety, so the family did not suspect that the problem was caused by ambient methane in their basement. After the explosion, took days of investigation to figure out how it got there. We have all read the story of the improperly closed flow line that filled the soil with gas.

Erin told about what it was like to be trapped in the rubble and not know where her son was. Most ironic and in some ways most shocking, she told of her subsequent search for a new home. The family did not want to leave Firestone, but the boy especially was adamant that the new home not be near any wells. In Firestone, that’s something of a tall order. They searched the permit records around every house they found, and at last identified one where the closest well seemed sufficiently distant. But then Anadarko decided to investigate reopening that well, and failed to find it where the records said it would be. It was finally located – on the fence line of the new Martinez household.

Needless to say, Erin and her children don’t live there, and are once again in search of a new home.

No other story, no other speaker, could possibly have brought home to us what a death-trap the oil and gas industry has created in northeastern Colorado. How can we escape it? Here in Longmont, we have a negotiated settlement that largely prevents new drilling within the city limits. Yet we have arguably the worst air quality on the Front Range. We can’t avoid the effects of oil and gas extraction either.

Watch this space for more about the progress of SB19-181. It was fast-tracked into committee, but only so much more fast-tracking can be done. The opposition to this bill will be fierce. We heard in Tuesday’s discussions that the number of proposed amendments is already up to nine – two days after the bill was introduced. The floor debates will be long, and there are many more stories to be told.

Tuesday night at 6:55pm I rushed into the chambers of the Longmont City Council, barely on time, still wearing the blue sweater and white scarf that marked me as a supporter of SB19-181. We altered the order of business so that the Council could vote immediately on whether to lend the city’s support to the bill. Sandi Seader, Assistant City Manager and in charge of legislative affairs, had recommended that we should. Here is what she wrote:

SB19-181 – Protect Public Welfare Oil and Gas Operations – this bill enhances local governments’ ability to protect public health, safety, and welfare and the environment by clarifying, reinforcing, and establishing their regulatory authority over the surface impacts of oil and gas development…

The most important part of the bill is at the very end:

IF THERE IS A CONFLICT BETWEEN THE REGULATIONS OR STANDARDS OF A LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND A STATE AGENCY, INCLUDING THE COMMISSION, OR BETWEEN STATE AGENCIES REGARDING AN EXERCISE OF AUTHORITY, THE REGULATION OR STANDARD THAT IS RATIONALLY DESIGNED TO BE MORE PROTECTIVE OF PUBLIC HEALTH, SAFETY, AND WELFARE, THE ENVIRONMENT, OR WILDLIFE RESOURCES CONTROLS.

This is a principle that the City has advanced for years, and it upends the entire body of oil and gas preemption caselaw since 1992. State O&G regulations will become a floor, not a ceiling. Since this legislation supports the existing Longmont regulations, and changes the focus of the COGCC towards regulation, rather than promotion of oil and gas production, staff recommends Council supports SB19-181.

The Council voted 6-1 to support the bill. With Longmont’s history, it is hard to imagine how we could have done otherwise. Even the single NO vote, Council Member Bonnie Finley, only said that she wanted to know more about the amendments before she could support the bill.

As soon as the vote was taken, Ms. Seader sent a text message to Assistant City Attorney Dan Kramer, who was still waiting at the Capitol to testify in favor of SB19-181. The Colorado Municipal League, who had already announced its support, had asked him to testify on their behalf, presumably because of his four-year effort at defending Longmont’s doomed fracking ban. He was prepared to say that he represented only the CML, and not the City of Longmont. But he got the text. So when Dan Kramer rose to speak before the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee, he was able to announce that he spoke on behalf not only of the Municipal League, but of Longmont too. And, right around midnight, that’s what he did.

Update: SB19-181 made it through the Senate Finance Committee last week as well. Monday, March 11 sees it debated before the full Senate.


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