Democratic lawmakers say they plan to introduce legislation to require that Colorado's oil and gas regulators make health and environmental concerns their top priority in response to Monday's long-anticipated court ruling that says the state must give more weight to other factors.
But Republicans and industry advocates cautioned against smothering one of the largest economic drivers in a state long considered a leader in safe energy production.
The Colorado Supreme Court said in a unanimous decision issued Monday that state regulators are required to "foster the development of oil and gas resources" while enforcing property rights and protecting public health and the environment — but only after weighing the cost-effectiveness and technical feasibility of those protections.
Democrats controlling both chambers of the Legislature called the court's ruling an invitation to amend the law in order to accomplish what Xiuhtezcatl Martinez of Boulder and five other teenagers sought in 2013.
That's when the young people — who later sued state regulators — asked the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to halt all oil and gas production until determining it could be done without “impair[ing] Colorado’s atmosphere, water, wildlife and land resources," and that it "does not adversely impact human health, and does not contribute to climate change.”
Regulators declined, leading to split decisions in lower courts and Monday's ruling by the state Supreme Court.
"It is up to the Legislature to make sure we finally prioritize health and safety when it comes to oil and gas operations," state Sen. Mike Foote, a Lafayette Democrat, told Colorado Politics after the high court's ruling. "We need to put health and safety over corporate profits."
Foote said Democratic lawmakers are ready to enact sweeping updates to the law that governs the mission of the commission, including proposals blocked in recent years by Republicans when the GOP held the gavel in the state Senate.
"The Martinez language is a good start," Foote said, referring to the rule initially proposed by Martinez and her fellow plaintiffs. "But you can do much more. There’s plenty of room for improvement."
He went on to list a number of measures Democrats have proposed in recent years, including establishing local control over drilling operations, reforming how the commission operates, and changing "forced pooling" rules that allow companies to extract fossil fuels without the consent of every affected property owner.
"In addition, the climate implications of oil and gas drilling must be addressed, though in what way and in which bill is still under discussion," Foote added.
House Speaker KC Becker said she's already drafting legislation to deal with implications of the court decision.
“Communities in every corner of our state want to know that their health and safety are being prioritized when it comes to oil and gas operations," Becker said in a written statement. "This ruling puts the decision back into the hands of lawmakers to take action, and we are committed to addressing this concern this legislative session."
They'll likely have an ally in Gov. Jared Polis, who called it "imperative for all Coloradans to address climate change" after taking office last week, though the Democrat declined through a spokeswoman to comment on specific proposals.
"We want to prioritize the consideration of public health and safety, as well as the environment," Polis told Colorado Politics in a statement. "We are ready to work with the Legislature and the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission to ensure that Coloradans are safe and that residents and neighbors have a say in where and when industrial activities take place near where they live."
Not so fast, said state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling.
"Attempts to stifle Colorado's energy industry hurts every person and company in the state," Sonnenberg told Colorado Politics. "The oil and gas industry has done an excellent job navigating the toughest rules in the country to make sure we have heat in our homes, gas in our cars, and everyday products like our cell phones and computers."
Noting that Colorado voters in November defeated a ballot measure that would have effectively banned drilling in most of the state, Sonnenberg added: "It appears the press was correct when they said the Democrats will overreach, (but) nobody thought they would start so soon."
Controversy over oil and gas drilling has been at the center of political debate in Colorado for years, but the quarrels have only increased in recent years as fracking technology has led to industrial development in the midst of communities on Colorado's heavily populated Front Range.
Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said the state's industry "is safe and is only getting safer each day with changes in technology and our commitment to producing our resources cleaner, better and safer than anywhere in the country."
The energy industry has seen emissions plunge in recent years, Haley noted, while production has increased.
"Despite this reality, if politicians choose to change how oil and gas is regulated, we will most definitely be at the table for those fact-based conversations,” he said.
Dan Leftwich, co-counsel for Our Children's Trust, the Oregon-based environmental group that represented the plaintiffs in the Martinez case, said in a statement that it's up to the "Legislature to amend the statute once again to make it absolutely clear that the protection of public health, safety and the environment is a mandatory condition that must be met before oil and gas permits can be issued."
He also called on Polis to "immediately impose a moratorium" on the thousands of drilling permit applications pending before the commission while the Legislature considers whether to rewrite the rules.
Foote said he supports putting the brakes on pending permits but also wants the commission to "look very critically at current applications, because there's a high likelihood a number of things will change this legislative session."
Tracee Bentley, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council, said in a statement that calls for "extreme measures" like "outright bans and moratoria are not examples of a good faith approach to this discussion."
Instead, she said: "As we have stated before, we are happy to sit down and discuss legislative options, and we will come to the table in good faith."