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The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a group of teenagers on Thursday, reversing a lower court ruling and opining that the state must hold public health and environmental protection to a higher level of importance than the interests of its oil and gas industry, the Denver Post reported.
The case was brought when teenager Xiutezcatl Martinez, with the backing of a number of environmental protection and advocacy groups, filed suit against the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), claiming that the commission was abusing its power by placing oil interests above those of the community and the environment.
The commission was formed with a mandate saying it should promote the “responsible, balanced” development of oil and gas “in a manner consistent with protection of public health, safety, and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources.”
Since the commission was formed, more than 50,000 oil wells have been drilled in the state, including “thousands” near cities and residential areas, according to oil company Ursa Resources Group.
Martinez filed the suit after the COGCC denied a new rule that he proposed in 2014. The rule would not let Colorado issue new permits for oil and gas drilling “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.”
When the teens sued, the Denver District Court upheld the COGCC’s determination, prompting Martinez and the groups backing him to challenge the decision in the state appeals court.
The appeals court focused on the mission statement of the COGCC, saying that it required more than balancing the interests of the oil industry and those of residents and the environment. The COGCC’s mandate “was not intended to require that a balancing test be applied. … Rather, the clear language (of the agency’s enabling legislation) … 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,” said the state appeals court ruling.
The appeals court’s ruling does not mandate that Martinez’s proposed rule be implemented, but that the COGCC unjustly rejected the proposal.
“We disagree with the majority and believe the District Court and the dissenting opinion have it right,” said COGCC spokesman Todd Hartman. “We are evaluating whether to appeal this decision to the Colorado Supreme Court.”
Environmental advocacy groups applauded the ruling. “This shifts health, safety and welfare concerns above development-as-usual permitting,” said Bruce Baizel, the energy program director of Earthworks. “Now the state of Colorado, after removing communities’ power to ban fracking and drilling themselves, might have to effectively ban fracking inside cities to protect residents’ health.”