Health isn’t 1st priority for energy regulators, court rules

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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.

The unanimous ruling was an endorsement of the way the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission operates. It was the latest in a series of wins for the industry, both in the courts and at the ballot box, against opponents who say the state is too lenient with energy companies.

But Democrats now control both houses of the Legislature as well as the governorship, and they appear ready to embrace tougher restrictions. House Speaker KC Becker said Monday that she is already working on a measure for the Legislature, which started work on Jan. 4.

"How do we make health and safety an earlier consideration or a more prominent consideration in siting and permitting?" she said. "This is really what we're hearing in the community."

Colorado's new governor, liberal Democrat Jared Polis, also said change is in the works.

"It only highlights the need to work with the Legislature and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to more safely develop our state's natural resources and protect our citizens from harm," Polis said in a statement.

Oil and gas drilling has long been contentious in Colorado, which ranks fifth nationally in crude oil production and sixth in natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration .

The Wattenberg oil and gas field — the most productive field in Colorado and one of the top 10 nationally — 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 pipeline from a nearby gas well.

Monday's ruling came in a lawsuit filed by six young people who argued state law requires regulators to ensure energy development does not harm people's health or the environment. They asked the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2013 to require those protections before issuing any drilling permits.

The commission refused, saying the law required it to balance health and environmental concerns with other factors. Those include the rights of energy companies and the people who own the oil and gas reserves as well as a mandate from lawmakers to foster drilling.

The Supreme Court said the law was ambiguous and that either interpretation could be correct. But the justices said statements by lawmakers who wrote the oil and gas law made it clear that regulators could not put safety and the environment first.

The law "envisions some possible environmental and public health risks," the ruling said.

Industry officials said Colorado already has the strictest oil and gas rules in the country and making them tougher would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and cut off tax revenue that supports schools and basic services.

"Those who filed this lawsuit have said they want to ban oil and natural gas development in Colorado, so we're happy to see the Supreme Court strike down this extreme effort and shortsighted agenda," said Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

The lawsuit is one of several nationwide in which young activists argue state and federal governments are threatening their futures by not doing enough to battle climate change and protect the environment.

The activists will keep fighting despite the Colorado ruling, said one of their lawyers, Julia Olson, who also represents young clients in a climate change lawsuit in federal court in Oregon.

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