Colorado officials said Tuesday that they had no plans to stop energy companies from drilling for oil and gas while regulators overhaul state rules to make health, safety and the environment their top priority.
Dan Gibbs, chief of the state Department of Natural Resources, said lawmakers did not want a moratorium on drilling permits while regulators rewrite the rules under a new law that shifted the state's focus from production to protection.
"It was never the intent of the Legislature that we pause our work," Gibbs told the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which will implement the new law. The commission is part of Gibbs' department.
Some environmentalists and community activists have demanded the commission stop issuing permits until the new rules are complete. They argue that drilling makes climate change worse, pollutes Colorado's air and water, and puts nearby residents at risk from fires and explosions.
Industry executives and workers argued against a moratorium. Janet Rost, whose company helps secure mineral rights, said she is a cancer survivor who depends on the industry for her livelihood — a job that helped her support her children when she was a single mom.
"Please don't pass a moratorium," she told the commissioners.
One of the measure's sponsors, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Stephen Fenberg, said the law "clearly contemplated" that the state would keep issuing drilling permits while the regulations were revised.
The law allows regulators to deny or delay permits to ensure they comply with the spirit of the law while the revisions are underway, Fenberg said in an email to The Associated Press.
House Speaker KC Becker and Rep. Yadira Caraveo, Democrats who sponsored the measure in the House, also said the law was neither a moratorium nor a ban on drilling.
Tuesday's meeting was the first time the oil and gas commission met since Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed the law mandating sweeping changes in regulations.
In addition to the new focus on protecting the public and the environment, the law gives local governments some authority over the location of wells.
The changes are Colorado's latest attempt to balance its booming oil and gas industry with a burgeoning population. The state's crude oil production has quadrupled since 2010, and it now ranks sixth in the nation in both oil and natural gas output, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.
But the state's most productive oil and gas field — the Wattenberg field north and east of Denver — borders on some fast-growing communities, raising fears about the dangers of pollution and accidents.
The new law changed the makeup of the seven-member commission to dilute industry influence, reducing the number of commissioners with oil and gas experience from three to one while adding experts in wildlife and public health.
Polis announced the new members Friday, a few days before their first meeting.
Only two commissioners are holdovers: Howard Boigon, who is an oil and gas attorney, and Erin Overturf, who works for the environmental group Western Resource Advocates.
Four other members applied for reappointment but were passed over, commission spokesman Chris Arend said.
Polis' spokeswoman, Shelby Weiman, did not directly answer a question about why the four were not chosen but said the new commission has the expertise and geographic and political diversity needed to implement the new law. She said Polis appreciates the service of the former commissioners.
Commission staff members have already begun rewriting rules and have held preliminary meetings and released some proposals. But the commissioners themselves are still reorganizing, and work on rewriting substantive drilling rules isn't expected to begin until later this year.
Once all the rules are rewritten, the commission will be replaced by a smaller version that includes five appointed, full-time commissioners and the heads of two state departments, natural resources and public health. The commission now consists of seven appointed, part-time members and the two department heads.
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