Hickenlooper orders COGCC to 're-evaluate' fines for drilling violations after bill fails

By David O. Williams
Real AspenMay 8, 2013
Gov. John Hickenlooper on Wednesday issued an executive order directing the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to “re-evaluate its enforcement philosophy” and consider tougher fines and penalties for companies that violate state drilling regulations.

The move came after House Bill 1267 -- the last remaining oil and gas bill this legislative session – was pulled by state Rep. Michael Foote, D-Lafayette, because no agreement could be reached on minimum fine amounts. Environmental groups and Democrats were upset that minimum fines were stripped out of the bill, which still would have increased maximum fines to $15,000 a day.

The current fine structure, capped at $1,000 a day, lags far behind other major oil and gas producing states, Foote argued, and doesn’t adequately punish companies for big spills or air-quality issues. Environmental groups late last week expressed disappointment when the state Senate declined to restore minimum fine amounts in Foote’s legislation.

Gov. John Hickenlooper

“The [COGCC] should re-evaluate its enforcement philosophy and approach and strive to structure fines and penalties to ensure that operators comply with rules and respond promptly and effectively to any impacts from such violation,” Hickenlooper’s order reads.

“Appropriate penalties for violations of rules on those developing oil and gas constitute one tool available to the commission. Penalties are designed to discourage violations and encourage prompt response in environmental or public health and safety concerns in the event that violations occur. For these reasons, Colorado requires strong and clear enforcement of the rules and assessment of fines and penalties accordingly.”

The COGCC is ordered to “undertake a strategic review of its violation and penalty assessment program used to enforce its rules and state law” and to “evaluate its rules, consistent with its statutory authority, regarding the adjustment of fines based on aggravating and mitigating factors so as to strongly deter violations and, equally strongly, encourage prompt and cooperative post-violation response and mitigation.”

It’s unlikely the order will do much to appease environmental groups bitterly disappointed with Hickenlooper’s lack of support for new legislation on a slew drilling issues from groundwater testing to the overall makeup and mission of the COGCC.

“The oil and gas industry got their wish-list this session thanks to Gov. Hickenlooper,” wrote Ellynne Bannon of the Checks and Balances Project environmental watchdog group. “Industry and the governor successfully killed legislation to toughen standards for polluters, kept the Anadarko-Noble loophole in place, weakened groundwater protection standards, and killed studies that would let us know the true dangers of fracking.

“The billion dollar oil and gas industry won big this session with the aid of our governor, all at the expense of public health and water safety.”

Gary Wockner of Clean Water Action went one step further, alleging that Hickenlooper worked to kill the bill mandating higher fines and issued the order to gain "political cover."

"Hypocritically, he killed this exact bill a few hours ago in the legislature and now he's trying to take credit for himself -- and away from the people and their representatives -- by saying he's addressing this issue?" Wocker said in a prepared statement.

"This executive order is an outrageous attempt to gain political cover and advantage for his failed policies to protect the public's health from cancer-causing drilling and fracking chemicals."

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