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New Oil And Gas Regulations Aimed At Improving Oversight Could Go On Hold During The Pandemic

Photo of an oil well.

The Utah Legislature is considering a bill this week that would put a one year pause on new oil and gas regulations in counties with fewer than 125,000 residents.

The Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Interim Committee voted Tuesday to recommend the bill to the full Legislature, which is scheduled to take it up Thursday during a special session. 

A scathing audit last year found that the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining had an “alarming” lack of oversight and hadn’t pursued a fine for violations since 1995. 

The division has been working on rules to address that audit, but those regulations could get pushed back a year.

“We've tried to address the significant criticisms of the legislative audit,” said John Baza, director of the division. “We've also been faced with industry partners who are pleading for some relief in terms of some of the newer regulatory initiatives that they consider burdensome to their activity.”

The industry has been hard hit during the coronavirus pandemic. In April, the price of a barrel of crude oil hit $0 and has since rebounded to about $40. That uncertainty has been bad for business, Baza added. 

Lawmakers, like Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, said Tuesday that they wanted to help those companies.

“I would like to see the top priority of the department be to keep these important companies in business,” Lyman said. “They pay a lot of taxes. They provide a lot of jobs.”

The bill does not have support, however, from environmentalists. 

HEAL Utah spokesperson Grace Olscamp said lots of industries have suffered during the pandemic and delaying regulations could hurt air quality. 

“There's an inherent connection between environmental health and public health,” Olscamp said. “During something like a pandemic, putting that at risk, especially something like air quality that has such a direct tie to respiratory viruses, we really see (it) as a threat to both the environment and our own health.”

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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