Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Coffman doubled down on her support of the oil and gas industry in her opening argument to the Colorado Supreme Court this week. She hoped to persuade the high court to relax a previous ruling on public health and environmental protections.
Coffman is representing the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the regulatory agency that oversees oil and gas development, in the state's highest court in what's known as the Martinez case. The case dates back to 2014, when six teenagers sued COGCC in an attempt to stop the state from issuing drilling permits without scientific evidence that the activity "does not adversely impact human health and does not contribute to climate change."
Although the case initially failed in district court, the teenage plaintiffs prevailed last year in the Colorado Court of Appeals when the court ruled that the COGCC had to place public health, safety and the environment as preconditions to permitting. Now, Coffman's 68-page brief filed this week takes the same stance that it did the last go-around: that the state shouldn't put public health, safety and the environment first. Instead, Coffman argues, the only requirement of COGCC is to "balance" corporate activity and public health.
“State law creates a balance between development of Colorado’s oil and gas resources — which are tremendously important to our economy and serve as a source of reliable energy — and our other core values, including environmental protection,” Coffman said in a statement this week. “As Coloradans, we should continue to engage in public debate on issues of statewide significance.”
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The future of the state's oil and gas industry hinges on a simple phrase in state law governing COGCC that has embroiled the agency in years-long litigation: "It is declared to be in the public interest to foster the responsible, balanced development, production, and utilization of the natural resources of oil and gas in the state of Colorado in a manner consistent with protection of public health, safety, and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources."
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Part of the state's legal defense hinges on Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language to help push its narrative that "in a manner consistent with" is synonymous with "balancing." Oddly enough, just a few lines down in the same subsection, the statute says, "in a manner that balances" with regard to wildlife conservation.
"I think it's pretty clear what 'consistent with' means," says Russell Mendell, a campaign director at Earth Guardians, a environmental advocacy nonprofit led by teenage plaintiff Xihutezcatl Martinez, the lawsuit's namesake. "I don't think you can redefine it to mean 'balance.' I think that's kind of ridiculous — and also, just in terms of what's happening in the state, it's clear that the COGCC is not doing enough to protect health and safety."
In an attempt to clarify the legislature's intent and reaffirm the COGCC's duty to uphold public health and safety above the interests of the oil and gas industry, Representative Joe Salazar sponsored HB 1071. Although it passed the House, it died in a Senate committee, even after passionate testimony in support of the bill.
Beyond Capitol politics and the courthouse, another effort is under way this year to push back against the oil and gas industry. Environmental activists at Colorado Rising are almost ready to circulate their petition to set a 2,500-foot buffer zone, known as a setback, between new oil and gas developments and occupied structures. The petition is under review by the Colorado Supreme Court. If it passes muster, it will begin circulating in time for its August deadline.