Colorado Supreme Court Finds For State Regulators In Martinez Oil And Gas Case

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Colorado Supreme Court building.
Photo: Colorado Supreme Court Exterior 1, Snow
The Colorado Supreme Court building.

Published 9:40 a.m. | Updated 1:10 p.m.

The Colorado Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision that ruled that the state’s oil and gas regulators must consider health and the environment in all its actions — from permits for new wells to new industry rules.

Instead, the Supreme Court ruled that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission can balance health and the environment with other considerations, like protecting property and production rights.

The ruling was a setback for both environmental groups and teenager Xiuhtezcatl Martinez of Boulder, who sued the COGCC back in 2014.

“There’s a very broken system where those that are put into power to represent the voices of our communities and our people are failing to do their job, and are putting industry profit over the health, safety and welfare of our communities,” Martinez said.

In the opinion from Justice Richard Gabriel, the court found that the COGCC, under applicable law, was correct when it determined, “it could not properly adopt the rule proposed by Respondents.”

The industry, including the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, praised the ruling. David Neslin, an industry attorney with Davis, Graham & Stubbs, and the former director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said the ruling is common sense.

“We're all energy consumers and we're all environmentalists. And I think in practice we can accomplish both objectives and I think the agency has done so,” Neslin said.

The case dates back to 2013, when Xiuhtezcatl Martinez of Boulder and other teenagers asked the COGCC to not grant permits “unless 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.”

The COGCC considered the rule request and denied it in 2014. Martinez and other environmental advocates brought their case to the courts in reply. Ultimately they made a successful argument in front of the Colorado Court of Appeals, which ruled in their favor.

Monday’s decision from the state Supreme Court reverses that ruling. The opinion is narrow in scope, and relates only to how the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission operates as an agency.

Environmentalists and oil companies have been on edge since the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the fall. A statewide ballot initiative to control drilling failed in November, which also ratcheted tensions up along some Front Range communities.

State House Speaker KC Becker said Monday that she’ll work to change the law so that the
industry has to do more to protect health and the environment.

Gov. Jared Polis said he was “disappointed” by ruling, but added, “it only highlights the need to work with the Legislature and the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission to more safely develop our state's natural resources and protect our citizens from harm.