The meeting was the third regularly scheduled monthly hearing of the COGCC since the passage of a landmark oil and gas reform bill earlier this year — and by far the most contentious. In response to past complaints about cramped hearing rooms at the COGCC’s Denver headquarters, it was held at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs, where commissioners heard from dozens of speakers during the three-hour public-comment period that began the hearing.
“We are suffering," AnnMarie Cleary, a Broomfield resident who lives near a fracking site, told commissioners. "We've reported it. We've gone to doctors. We have health issues. This commission is a new commission, with a new vision, and the vision now is to first protect health and safety. We can no longer go on allowing everything until those rules are established."
Tensions ran high throughout the comment period, as activists from a wide range of grassroots environmental groups held up protest signs, interrupted pro-industry speakers and repeatedly clashed with COGCC officials.
"The reason that we're showing up and making more noise is that we've tried it your way," said Suzanne Spiegel, an activist with anti-fracking group Colorado Rising. "We tried to be polite, and yet you haven't denied a single permit."
Demonstrators donned breathing masks, coughed over speakers who defended the oil and gas industry and displayed signs calling attention to the "F" rating given to the Denver metro area's air quality by the American Lung Association. Oil and gas sites are known emitters of ozone-forming pollutants like nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, and studies have shown that industry facilities along the Front Range are among the top contributors to the region's elevated ozone levels, accounting for nearly half of the region's local ozone production.
As protests began, Dan Gibbs, the director of the state's Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the COGCC, called a recess that lasted about twenty minutes. A security guard was present as the hearing resumed, and two Denver police officers were stationed inside the meeting room shortly afterward.
Gibbs repeatedly asked demonstrators to quiet down and be respectful of all speakers, and at one point objected to what he called the "intimidation" of industry proponents. "I don't think that's the Colorado way," he said.
Following the end of the public comment period, activists again disrupted the meeting, spreading out across the room to hold up banners and chant protest slogans. "No more fracking, no more oil, keep the carbon in the soil," activists chanted as Gibbs called another recess and most commissioners filed out of the room.
As they have since the passage of Senate Bill 181 (the oil and gas reform legislation signed into law by Governor Jared Polis in May), activists urged commissioners to impose a moratorium on new drilling permits until the law is fully implemented, and argued that continued fossil fuel development is incompatible with the state’s commitment to fighting climate change.
Deborah McNamara, an activist with 350 Colorado, pointed commissioners to the most recent report issued by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned that the world must cut greenhouse gas emissions nearly in half by 2030 to keep warming below catastrophic levels. "The most reasonable response to this information, for this commission, would be to do exactly what is recommended: rapidly phase out CO2 emissions," McNamara said.
Over 90 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are the result of the combustion of fossil fuels like oil and natural gas, the production of both of which has soared in Colorado over the past two decades. State officials, like their counterparts in many other governments around the world, have enacted a slate of so-called demand-side energy policies that seek to reduce the need for fossil fuels by incentivizing new renewable electricity generation and the electrification of transportation, heating and other sectors. But many activists with groups like 350 Colorado believe that these demand-side policies should be accompanied by tougher restrictions on the supply of fossil fuels, enacted by bodies like the COGCC.
"This should be front and center on all decision-making processes," McNamara said. "You should ensure that you have an immediate short-term as well as a long-term plan to rapidly transition away from oil and gas in our state, and toward a renewable energy infrastructure."
Activists departed Wednesday's hearing after their brief demonstration, leaving commissioners to work through an agenda full of other agency business, including the finalization of the "500 Series" rulemaking that represents the first major regulatory change of the post-SB 181 era. But the next scheduled hearing is just three weeks away, and Wednesday is unlikely to be the last time the commission hears from Coloradans opposed to oil and gas drilling.
"Many of the people in this room today have been coming to meetings for ten years," says Spiegel. "And what we've seen is that nothing changes. So we have to try something different, because our communities are on the line, our air is on the line, and we know that the future of our planet is on the line. We've tried being polite, and now we're committed to getting their attention."