Colorado Supreme Court to hear appeal of case involving oil and gas regulators, environmentalists

DENVER – The Colorado Supreme Court announced Monday it will hear an appeal over a lower court’s ruling that state oil and gas regulators needed to sufficiently weigh the impact of oil and gas development on public health and the environment before drawing up new rules.

Last year, the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s decision stemming from an argument between a group of teens and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) over a new rule the teens proposed to the COGCC in 2013.

The rule would have barred the state from issuing new oil and gas drilling permits unless science and a third party could prove that the drilling wouldn’t “impair Colorado’s atmosphere, water, wildlife, and land resources, does not adversely impact human health and does not contribute to climate change.”

But the COGCC said in 2014 that such a rule would have been beyond its authority. But environmental advocacy groups joined the teens and appealed the COGCC decision to the Denver District Court.

Attorney General Cynthia Coffman backed the COGCC, which was joined in the case by the American Petroleum Institute and the Colorado Petroleum Association.

The district court sided against the teens and environmental advocates, who in turn appealed the case to the state court of appeals, arguing that the judge in the case had misread the initial directive purpose of the lawmaker-created COGCC. The COGCC is tasked with being sure development of oil and gas sites is “responsible [and] balanced” and that its production is “consistent with protection of public health, safety, and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources.”

Last March, the court of appeals found in favor of the teenagers and advocacy groups, saying that the language in the COGCC’s directive “was not intended to require that a balancing test be applied,” but rather that development “be regulated subject to the protection of public health, safety, and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources.”

But Coffman, the attorney general, appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, arguing that state law was being re-written and that previous Supreme Court rulings were being overwritten. She appealed on behalf of the regulators, but over Gov. John Hickenlooper’s objections.

Hickenlooper released a statement at the time that his office believed “the statute governing the commission’s powers does not include the authority to initiate an appeal” in the case, but that Coffman and her office had “reached a different legal conclusion.”

“The commission already elevates public health and environmental concerns when considering regulating oil and gas operations,” the governor said at the time.

The Supreme Court’s Monday granting of the petition for writ of certiorari reframes the question at hand to be: “Whether the court of appeals erred in determining that the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission misinterpreted section 34-60-102(1)(a)(I), C.R.S. as requiring a balance between oil and gas development and public health, safety, and welfare.”

In a statement to Denver7 Monday, Coffman said she was pleased the court would hear the appeal.

“We appreciate the Court’s decision to hear this appeal, and provide the necessary legal clarity on this important issue that has the potential to affect numerous state agencies,” she said. “We look forward to having the opportunity to present this case to the Court.”

Several municipalities along the Front Range have tried to ban fracking and new oil and gas development only to be held up by court decisions over the past several years. The state is also looking at new rules to determine how oil and gas operators map and service their infrastructure.

The COGCC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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