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Colorado Supreme Court Rules for Oil, Gas Regulators in Public Health Lawsuit

The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of state regulators about how much weight needed to be given to public health and environmental concerns.

The high court affirmed that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) had acted appropriately in 2013 when it declined to hear a proposed rule filed by a group of Boulder teenagers, Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, No. 17 Supreme Court 297.

The teenagers asked the COGCC to consider a proposed rule that no new permits for oil and gas drilling be issued “unless the best available science demonstrates, and an independent third-party organization confirms, that drilling can occur in a manner that does not cumulatively, with other actions, impair Colorado’s atmosphere, water, wildlife, and land resources, does not adversely impact human health and does not contribute to climate change.”

When COGCC declined to adopt the rule, the plaintiffs appealed, with support from the Oregon-based group Our Children’s Trust, which has pushed for environmental and health protection in 44 states.

The Colorado Court of Appeals in a 2-1 decision last year said public health and environmental protections clearly had to be in place before any new oil and gas drilling was allowed. The appeals court relied on state changes made in 2007 that had altered the mission of the COGCC so that it would consider public health, safety, environmental and wildlife issues in relation to development of oil and gas natural resources.

The COGCC then voted unanimously to appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court to gain "clarity.” While former Gov. John Hickenlooper said at the time the COGCC lacked statutory authority to challenge the court's interpretation, Attorney General Cynthia Coffman disagreed, claiming the ruling would change the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Act. 

Coffman last year had urged the Colorado Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court ruling made in 2017, which said the public’s health and environment should have a higher priority. The American Petroleum Institute (API) and Colorado Petroleum Association intervened in the lawsuit.

Coffman argued last year that not allowing the COGCC to have final authority over rulemakings about the oil and gas industry would “dramatically” change regulatory reviews. 

Industry supporters, including the Colorado Petroleum Council, a division of API, said the high court’s decision was a decisive win.

Executive Director Tracee Bentley said the Colorado Supreme Court “was right to deny a single out-of-state interest group -- one that advocates for ending all energy development across the country -- the ability to rewrite our state’s laws.

“This attempt to advance their extreme agenda into other states and against other industries would have put hundreds of thousands out of work and drain state and local coffers for education and other basic services.” 

Bentley said it was “time to focus on uniting to encourage energy development in the United States, and, specifically, in Colorado. We are confident in Colorado’s energy future and the ability of the Colorado natural gas and oil industry’s ability to continue to reshape the global energy balance, fueling an American manufacturing revival and leading the world in environmental progress.”

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