Top Colorado court rebuffs health, safety groups on oil-gas; Aurora lawmaker calls for legislative action

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DENVER | The Colorado Supreme Court said Monday that state law does not allow oil and gas regulators to make health and environmental protection their top priority, prompting Democrats who control the Legislature to call for changing the law.

In a victory for the energy industry, the court said Colorado law requires regulators to “foster” oil and gas production while protecting health and the environment. But the justices said regulators must take into account whether those protections are cost-effective and technically feasible

It’s a decision that packs a particularly sore punch for Aurora City Councilwoman Nicole Johnston, who last month requested the city lawmakers re-examine an oil and gas well project in northeast Aurora, called the Jamaso pad site. It’s to be located 1,025 feet from the Fox Ridge Farm mobile home park. The hearing, which was held last week, attracted more than two dozen nearby residents who cited health and safety concerns from the well.

City council members ultimately decided to affirm the project, which met all state and city standards. A city attorney advised the council members in December that if they didn’t approve the application, the city would face a lawsuit.

“The public’s health and safety should always come before the industry’s profits. This (decision) demonstrates the need for major reform of the COGCC, and I look forward to working with the state legislature to pass necessary legislation to address this,” Johnston told the Sentinel.

The court’s ruling said state law mandates that regulators “foster” oil and gas production while protecting public health and the environment. However, the court says regulators must take into account whether those safety measures are cost-effective and technically feasible.

The decision is a win for the industry, but stricter state rules might still be ahead because Democrats now control the Legislature and the governor’s office.

Newly elected Gov. Jared Polis would like local governments to have more control over the industry, which could result in enhanced restrictions on how close wells can be drilled to homes and schools.

Aurora House Rep. Mike Weissman, who represents the area where the Jamaso oil and gas site will go, said he was disappointed in the ruling.

“This decision underscores the need for the legislature to take action to address Coloradans’ health and safety concerns by updating our outdated state law,” he said. “I am optimistic that the legislature will be able to do that this session.”

Community advocates and environmental groups wanted the court to rule that health and the environment should take precedence over oil and gas production. That could have inspired tougher rules on where companies can drill.

Oil and gas drilling is a hot-button issue in Colorado, which ranks fifth nationally in crude oil production and sixth in natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The state’s most productive oil and gas field — which is also one of the 10 most productive in the U.S. — overlaps fast-growing communities north of Denver, triggering frequent disputes over the proximity of wells to neighborhoods. In 2017, two people were killed in a home explosion and fire blamed on a severed natural gas pipeline.

The debate has played out in the courts, at the ballot box and before the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Voters have repeatedly defeated ballot measures to expand the minimum distance between wells and occupied buildings. The most recent defeat came last November, after the energy industry spent lavishly on ad campaigns that said the measure would kill jobs and throttle a lucrative industry.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by six young people who asked the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2013 to require that energy companies show they would not harm human health or the environment or contribute to climate change before regulators issued a drilling permit.

A district court sided with the commission; however, the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed the lower court in a 2-1 decision last year.

Then-Attorney General Cynthia Coffman appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Colorado lawsuit is one of several across the nation in which youthful activists argue state and federal governments are threatening their futures by not making enough of an effort to stem climate change and protect the environment.

Julia Olson, one of the lawyers in the Colorado lawsuit, also represents young clients in a climate change lawsuit filed in Oregon federal court.