Colorado High Court Sides With Oil & Gas Over Health Fears

DENVER (CN) – The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday rejected a petition brought by six young people asking the Centennial State to make human health a priority when issuing permits for oil and gas drilling.  

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“The court acknowledges the civic engagement of these young men and women as well as the concerns that motivated this action,” wrote Justice Richard Gabriel a 31-page opinion. “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as expressing a view as to the merits of respondents’ concerns, or, conversely, as to the merits of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s interest in fostering the responsible, balanced development, production, and utilization of Colorado’s oil and gas resources.

“The resolution of these weighty and sometimes conflicting policy concerns, however, is not the issue before us,” Gabriel wrote.

In 2013, seven youth plaintiffs asked the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to adopt a rule against issuing “any permits for the drilling of a well for oil and gas” unless the drilling could be proven to be environmentally safe to the surrounding area and would not contribute to climate change.

The young people sought to require new drilling permits be issued only if “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.”

After generating a 1,100-page record on that issue, the commission ultimately rejected the proposal and found it was required by law to “balance” health and environmental concerns with continued oil and gas well development. The commission was additionally working with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to redress health issues associated with drilling.

The commission’s decision was upheld by the Denver County District Court before being overturned by the Colorado Court of Appeals in March 2017.

On appeal before the Colorado Supreme Court, the justices heard debate on whether Colorado law requires the commission to prioritize public health or whether, as the commission interpreted the law, health is one of many factors to be weighed in considering new permits.

“In our view, the pertinent provisions make clear that the commission is required to foster the development of oil and gas resources, protecting and enforcing the rights of owners and producers, and in doing so, to prevent and mitigate significant adverse environmental impacts to the extent necessary to protect public health, safety, and welfare, but only after taking into consideration cost-effectiveness and technical feasibility,” Gabriel wrote for the high court.

Following the high court’s decision, new state Attorney General Phil Weiser said Monday he would take an interest in seeing that the commission addressed health concerns around drilling.

“The Supreme Court appropriately recognized that the commission has broad authority to regulate oil and gas development to protect the public health, safety and environment,” Weiser said in a statement. “Moving forward, I will work with the commission and other state agencies to ensure that oil and gas development in Colorado is consistent with the public health, safety, and environment.”

Weiser also said he was available to assist the Legislature in clarifying the commission’s mandate.

But Our Children’s Trust chief legal counsel Julia Olson, who represents the youth plaintiffs, suggested the law itself offers inadequate protections.

“Until the Oil and Gas Conservation Act is amended or set aside as unconstitutional, the Oil and Gas Commission has unfettered discretion to promote Colorado’s dangerous and pervasive oil and gas development at the expense of the people,” Olson said in a statement Monday. “The act, as interpreted by the Supreme Court today, is unconstitutional because it allows the state to deprive Coloradans of their health, safety and basic security.”

Olson added that she plants to continue supporting Colorado youth “in their fight against fossil fuel development.”

Many of the plaintiffs expressed disappointment but stressed the need to continue their work.

“To know that the judges in the highest court of my state believe that the interests of the oil and gas industry come before the public health, safety, and welfare of my fellow Coloradans is shameful. But I want you all to know that this fight for climate justice is far from over,” lead plaintiff Xiuhtezcatl Martinez said in a statement.

An outspoken critic of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, Martinez is also involved in the 2015 federal lawsuit Juliana v. the United States which seeks to hold the federal government accountable for climate change.

“My fellow plaintiffs, youth around the world, and I will continue to stand up for our right to a healthy future,” Martinez added.

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