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David Sirota
David Sirota
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A New Deregulatory Push In the Energy Heartland


In recent weeks, Washington has provided ample evidence that the fossil fuel industry remains as powerful as ever in the wake of the Gulf Coast apocalypse. Whether it's Louisiana's Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu demanding more offshore drilling as her state gets covered in sludge, or Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton criticizing the government for forcing BP to finance a spill relief fund, major political players in D.C. still do energy firms' bidding, leaving both national parties disinclined to champion stronger environmental statutes.

Such Beltway intransigence is certainly atrocious, and has rightfully generated media fury. However, congressional reluctance to proactively legislate eco-friendly regulation is less outrageous than the state-based push for full-on deregulation.

The key political battlefield in this little-noticed but big-impact fight is Colorado, which holds one of the country's largest oil and natural gas reserves. In the state's 2010 gubernatorial campaign, former congressman Scott McInnis (R) and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper (D) have turned the race into a competition to see who is more enthusiastic about shredding the minimal energy regulations already on the state's books.

Among the rules in question are: requirements that drillers consult with regulators when operating in sensitive wilderness, provisions creating no-drill buffers around drinking water supplies and mandates that energy companies follow more strict waste management guidelines. To understand how crucial such regulations are in the Rocky Mountain region, just look at Chevron's 20,000-gallon petroleum spill in Utah a few weeks ago, peruse the Denver Post's recent report documenting 1,000 drilling-related spills in Colorado over the last two years, or watch the HBO documentary "Gasland" showing citizens in drilling country lighting their chemically contaminated tap water on fire.

Despite all this, and despite analysts now warning that Gulf-inspired offshore drilling restrictions could mean even more drilling throughout Colorado's fragile ecosystem, both McInnis and Hickenlooper last week told energy executives that they would try to weaken state environmental regulations if elected.

As a former oil lobbyist, McInnis was at least consistent in his "drill, baby, drill" posture. Hickenlooper, by contrast, had been billing himself as an environmental advocate. That is, until he launched his gubernatorial campaign by attacking environmentalists as "overboard," insisting he is skeptical about climate change's potential consequences, and now criticizing energy regulations as "onerous."

But, then, consistency (or lack thereof) is less troubling than both candidates dishonestly justifying their positions with old fables about the environmental rules allegedly hampering energy exploration and killing jobs.

These industry-manufactured claims, mind you, have been previously debunked. The Associated Press, for instance, has reported that though the recession hurt all energy producers including Colorado, the state still "led its energy-producing neighbors" in drilling permits last year — even with the rules. Meanwhile, the Ft. Collins Coloradoan in February noted that "after years of claiming Colorado's new oil and gas regulations will chase the energy industry and its jobs from the state, oil and gas operators and an industry group are now saying the rules will have little impact on future energy development."

In light of those facts, the deregulatory push by McInnis and Hickenlooper can be viewed as the equivalent of trying to ramrod candy down a child's throat. So desperate to display their fealty to the fossil fuel industry, the two candidates have resorted to force feeding oil and gas executives goodies — even if those executives say they don't need them.

Such persistence exposes the destructive corporatism baked into our politics. Suddenly, we can see both parties' ideological rejection of the Gulf Coast's "first do no harm" lesson in favor of industry's consequences-be-damned reflex.

That profiteering ethos, of course, originally birthed the Gulf crisis. Now, thanks to Colorado, it threatens yet more ecologically sensitive regions with the prospect of yet more man-made disasters.

David Sirota is the author of the best-selling books "Hostile Takeover" and "The Uprising." He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado and blogs at E-mail him at or follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.



3 Comments | Post Comment
All production is dangerous.

That's no reason to prevent mining, farming, or even drilling, or have a heavy-handed caution over it.

It seems an insensitive statement, but farmers hands will keep getting chopped up under farm machinery, and no amount of legislation will take that risk away from farming activities.

Yes, there should be caution, but caution whose costs match the benefit of the risk reduced. But some risk will always be there, and is increasingly harder to eliminate.

This computer on which I type could explode in blue smoke, but I don't worry when I have to send a necessary email to distant relatives through it.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Prateek Sanjay
Thu Jul 1, 2010 11:58 PM
Re: Prateek Sanjay
Where is David Sirota advocating preventing mining et al. or "heavy-handed caution"? He's saying that the candidates in Colorado are racing to promise to remove what regulation is already on the books as opposed to pushing for stronger environmental statutes in the wake of the Gulf Coast disaster.
Yes, farmer's hands will get cut off and regulation can't prevent that, but that's a false analogy, because while the loss of his hand may affect the farmer's livelihood, it's not going to impact much of the community around him. The same goes for your computer. If you're working in your office and your computer explodes, based on the energy that runs through it, it might generate enough power to imbed some shrapnel in your leg and you'll lose your files, but it's not going to adversely effect any of your coworkers.
That also completely ignores the fact that there should be regulation that tries to ensure that the likelihood that a farmer's going to lose his hand or that your computer might explode is small, since consumers should be able to rely on their devices to work under normal circumstances.
But unlike your computer or the farmer's hand, if a well leaks or a the water gets contaminated, then that impacts the entire community around the point of failure. We cannot prevent every leak or spill that occurs, but we should do everything that we can reasonably do to avoid such eventualities. Though the investigation is still ongoing, it looks like BP constantly pushed to go the cheaper route rather than the safer route when designing and building the rig. It's not completely clear yet, but had they used more robust materials, it's quite possible that the rig would never have exploded in the first place. The failsafes might have worked the way they were supposed to and released the pressure that eventually caused everything to erupt.
A bit of a non sequitur, but is it heavy-handed for the Natural Gas companies to be regulated when they cause chemical build-ups in a community's water supply to the point where it ignites from an open flame? Would you want to live in a community like that? Would you drink that water? If safety failures can cause enormous harm to the surrounding area, then we should have protections in place to try to prevent that damage from occurring, and there should be enforced contingency plans in the event that a catastrophic failure does occur. That's not something that BP (or any of the oil companies) showed that it had in place regarding the Deepwater Horizon spill.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Glen Weiss
Fri Jul 2, 2010 1:52 PM
Mr. Weiss, your point is irrefutably correct, but tort laws are adequate in handling such matters. Why regulation, when the threat of criminal charges exist?

There are already laws to make corporations liable when their negligence causes harm to other people or their property. It's a criminal act and an aggression against another person, so of course they will pay. As someone involved in handling the venture capital financing for the family business and planning ahead for venture management before the sale of the family business, I have to keep reading various cases of lawsuits related to employees or shareholders that end up crashing business like ours. The very thought of ending up in a debilitating civil or criminal case brings sweat to our foreheads, and we have to be ready for the fact that the family owners of the business will be held liable for anything that any employee does or any document that a representative writes with our signature. We could have to fork out a lot of money just because we did or said the most innocent thing.

For even larger corporations, there is more nervousness about it, since there are even more employees and more activities, and you can't keep a close eye on what happens where.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Prateek Sanjay
Fri Jul 2, 2010 8:40 PM
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