CO Supreme Court takes Martinez appeal, reopening debate on oil and gas safety

The Colorado Supreme Court today announced that it will hear the appeal of a controversial case, the outcome of which could have major implications for how the oil and gas industry does business in Colorado.

The case, Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, centers around the question of whether the state is obliged to first and foremost consider the impact of drilling on public health.

In 2013, a group of young plaintiffs, led by 17-year-old Xiuhtzecatl Martinez, petitioned the state oil and gas regulatory agency, known as the COGCC, to prohibit new drilling permits unless it can be scientifically demonstrated that such drilling will not harm human health or Colorado’s ecological resources or contribute to climate change.

But the COGCC, which is funded largely by the oil and gas industry, says that such a rule would undermine its dual mission: to protect health and safety, and to promote drilling.

COGCC Director Matt Lepore said in 2012, “Those things have to be done in balance.” In other words, concerns about health effects or climate change cannot preclude the mandate to extract Colorado’s fossil fuels. The COGCC did not respond to The Colorado Independent’s request for comment. Martinez was unable to respond to this story in time for publication, but it will be updated with his comments.

In a 2016 ruling, Colorado’s Denver District Court sided against the teenagers. Their lawyers appealed, and last May the state Court of Appeals ruled that the COGCC does, in fact, have a responsibility to protect human welfare and the natural environment — even if that responsibility hampers oil and gas extraction.

The COGCC mission, the Court of Appeals argued, “was not intended to require that a balancing test be applied.” Rather, it “mandates that the development of oil and gas in Colorado be regulated subject to the protection of public health, safety, and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources.”

Despite repeated calls from environmentally-minded Coloradans —  and a request from Governor John Hickenlooper — to let the decision stay, the COGCC called for an appeal of the ruling. State Attorney General Cynthia Coffman appealed the decision on behalf of the COGCC last summer.

On Monday, the Colorado Supreme Court granted the appeal with a slightly reframed question: “Whether the court of appeals erred in determining that the [COGCC] misinterpreted [its mandate] as requiring a balance between oil and gas development and public health, safety, and welfare.”

The full text of the COGCC’s mandate under Colorado’s Revised Statutes is available here.

Photo: Protesters demand a fracking moratorium in Boulder, CO in 2017. (Ted Wood/The Story Group)