DENVER — Supporters of Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter's successful overhaul of the state's oil and gas regulations hope his decision not to seek re-election won't mean the rollback of the protections for wildlife and the environment.
The Democrat's announcement Wednesday that he is dropping out of the race prompted praise from conservationists for his support of new oil and gas rules – and concerns about any efforts to repeal them.
No other Democrat has stepped forward since Ritter announced his decision.
Republican gubernatorial candidates Scott McInnis and Dan Maes have said the regulations approved on Ritter's watch have discouraged energy development. Each has promised thorough reviews of them if elected.
Colorado and national industry groups have denounced the regulations as the most restrictive in the country.
The rules, which took effect last April, balance protecting the state's wildlife and landscapes and allowing energy development, conservation, hunting and angling, the groups said.
"Gov. Ritter deserves credit for proving that wildlife protection and responsible energy development are not mutually exclusive," said Steve Torbit, the National Wildlife Federation's executive director for the Rocky Mountain region.
Supporters will work with state officials to make sure the regulations stay in place, Torbit said.
Laws giving more weight to the environment, wildlife and public health and safety were approved in 2007 amid a natural gas boom in the Rockies. Conservation groups as well as hunters and anglers lobbied for more attention to the effects on wildlife, air and water quality.
Drilling boomed in western Colorado, home to some of the country's largest deer and elk herds, greater sage grouse and cutthroat trout – and a tourism and hunting industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Ritter courted hunters and anglers when he ran for governor in 2006. He responded to concerns about the impacts of development by backing legislation that revamped the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Now, more members on the regulatory body must come from outside the industry, addressing criticism that the panel was stacked in the industry's favor.
The rules were approved after months of public hearings, meetings with various interest groups and deliberations by the oil and gas commission.
"I think the Ritter administration stood up for Colorado's wildlife at a pivotal juncture in our history," said Suzanne O'Neill of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, which includes hunters and anglers.
The task isn't finished, said Ivan James of the Colorado Bowhunters Association. Rules on how far drilling rigs must be from homes and waterways, reclamation standards and wildlife guidelines still must be considered.
Torbit said he rejects the argument that the oil and gas regulations are behind the drop in drilling in Colorado. The economic slowdown coupled with a huge supply of natural gas are the culprits, he said.
"I'm very, very concerned that the opposition party is using the oil and gas rules as the excuse for every problem that everybody has," Torbit said. "If their kid gets a `D' in math, it's suddenly Gov. Ritter and the oil and gas rules."
Former Colorado congressman McInnis, the GOP front-runner in the governor's race, believes the regulations are out of balance and have cost Colorado high-paying jobs and tax revenue, said campaign spokesman Sean Duffy. If elected, McInnis would start discussions of the rules with all the interested parties, Duffy said.
"People want a governor who's going to say, `We're going to preserve jobs as well as the environment,'" Duffy said.