- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

DENVER (AP) - Colorado’s House Republicans warned of a tangle of lawsuits Thursday if a bill that would make it easier for people to sue energy firms whose drilling operations damage property or harm people becomes law.

That seems unlikely, as the bill, which advanced on a party-line vote Thursday in the Democrat-led House, has yet to reach the GOP-controlled Senate. But it didn’t stop opponents from presenting objections to the legislation, whose sponsor, Thornton Democrat Joseph Salazar, represents a district that’s seen an increase in fracking activity.

Specifically, the bill would hold energy companies liable if their operations cause damaging earthquakes. It says plaintiffs could sue without having to first demonstrate a direct link between a drilling operation and a damaging quake. And it would shift the burden of proof in such lawsuits to drillers, which would have to demonstrate that their work didn’t cause quake-related damage.

Scientists have attributed some quakes in Oklahoma to massive groundwater injection of waste fluids from fracking, which uses chemicals to pry oil and gas from underground.

Debate focused Thursday on the bill only requiring that oil and gas operations happened in an area affected by an earthquake for a plaintiff to proceed.

“This bill goes way too far,” said Rep. J. Paul Brown of Ignacio, who said drillers operating beneath his own property already are liable for any surface damages they cause. If they refuse to honor those obligations, he said, “we can go to court.”

The bill is part of a long-running battle between the energy industry and those concerned about fracking’s impact on residential areas.

Others argued the bill ignores a state regulatory system already in place and that court rulings have established precedent in handling damage claims against energy operators.

Salazar said those decisions predate rapid technological advances in hydraulic fracturing that allow horizontal drilling for extended distances - and that state statute needs to take those advances, and their possible risks, into account. “We need to have a remedy,” he said.

“This bill is not trying to protect any people who’ve been harmed by oil and gas,” said minority leader Brian DelGrosso of Loveland, another Front Range community that has seen the advance of drilling operations. “This is nothing more than an attack on an industry” already suffering because of low oil and gas prices, he said.

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