DENVER (CN) – A panel of seven Colorado Supreme Court justices heard arguments Tuesday regarding the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s role in considering the industry’s impact on human health when issuing permits.
In 2013, six 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.
After generating a 1,200 page record on that matter, the commission ultimately rejected the proposal on the grounds that it was required by law to “balance” health and environmental concerns with continued oil and gas well development.
The commission’s decision was later affirmed by the Denver County District Court and then overturned by the Colorado Court of Appeals in March 2017.
The Colorado Supreme Court agreed to settle that matter of whether the commission’s existing environmental requirements regarding drilling are sufficient.
“Here the commission received a petition that would drastically alter the way it does business,” Solicitor General Frederick Yarger said on behalf of the state.
The youth’s extraordinary request not only exceeded the commission’s authority, but would be impossible to enact, Yarger said. On the other hand, the “balancing” standard employed by the commission was written into law and worked.
“You’ve used the word ‘balancing’ a few times, can you explain what you mean?” asked Justice Brian Boatright.
“I agree ‘balancing’ is a complex decision.” Yarger explained, “The way balancing actually plays out, the commission must consider the significance of impacts, mitigation and costs. Insuring that balancing is implemented is part of our judicial review. It’s not an either or, it’s not a zero-sum decision.”
Yarger continued to say that under current rules “the commission has to regulate health and environment impacts. What it can’t do is implement a zero-sum standard and halt the oil and gas industry while that standard is being developed.”
On behalf of the youth plaintiffs, attorney Julia Olson countered that a plain reading of the statute in question showed that the commission was required to balance development with adverse impacts to wildlife, not human life.
“Balancing environmental impact with development does not apply to the commission’s imperative to protect human health,” Olsen said. “The commission is conflating the protection of environment and wildlife with human health.”
When Justice Melissa Hart asked Olsen if the ambiguity was a result of poor word choice, Olsen said, “There is no ambiguity about the importance of human health impacts in the statute.”
“The commission is the only entity statewide overseeing public health, safety and welfare,” Olsen added. “These concerns are real.”
Also on the panel were Justices William Hood III, Monica Marquez, Richard Gabriel, Carlos Samour Jr., and Chief Justice Nathan Coats.
The panel did not indicate when they would reach a decision, however it is more likely that the people of Colorado will make the next move. On Nov. 6, Coloradans will vote on Prop 112, a ballot measure that seeks to increase statewide proximity limits between mineral mining and homes or schools.
Many supporters of Prop 112 gathered on the courthouse steps Tuesday afternoon, holding signs for cameras and the busy intersection before filing into the courtroom and filling it to its 195-person capacity.