On Tuesday, October 16th, the Colorado Supreme Court was packed as attorneys for seven young people battled against those representing the state and the oil and gas industry. The dispute boils down to whether public health and safety should be prioritized over oil and gas development. H2O Radio was there.
photo credit: Frani Halperin, H2O Media, Ltd. The young plaintiffs and their lawyers speak to media after the Colorado Supreme Court hears arguments in the Martinez case.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, also known as COGCC, has two missions, which at times seem conflicting: promoting extraction, but also protecting public health and safety. COGCC sees its role as balancing the two; but a group of seven young people—the oldest currently twenty years old, think instead that public health and safety should take priority over new oil and gas development. They claim that the agency acts as if its primary purpose is to promote the maximum production of oil and gas regardless of its effects.
Five years ago the seven asked the COGCC to start prioritizing public welfare and the environment by issuing new rules. The commission then held a public hearing about the kids’ request and denied it saying they are not required to prioritize health and safety, just balance them with development something it has been doing for decades.
But the kids would not be stopped. They turned to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which agreed with them saying the agency must elevate public health, safety, welfare, and the environment over development. Governor John Hickenlooper stepped in and ordered COGCC not to appeal that ruling, but the agency did so anyway with the aid of the Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, along with industry associations.
In court in front of about 150 spectators including State Representatives Joe Salazar and Mike Foote, the attorneys made their arguments to the justices sometimes getting far into the weeds of the laws that establish the oil a gas commission. Even some of the attorneys in the audience scratched their heads because state statutes are so complex.
After the hour-long hearing, the young plaintiffs met outside the courthouse and addressed about 50 supporters and press. Eighteen-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez spoke first saying that they filed the lawsuit because they are very concerned about their community, and future. They also see the COGCC, as well as politicians, as failing to protect people’s health and the environment.
Another of the young plaintiffs, nineteen-year-old Emma Bray said its our responsibility to take measures to protect the state for her kids and her kids’ kids.
Julia Olson who represented the young people said that during the hearing Justice Monica Marquez put the lawyer for COGCC on the spot by asking if the agency could issue a permit to drill even if there was evidence that oil and gas drilling was harming human health. Olson said the lawyer for COGCC danced around the question but never answered it—even though it is the most salient question in the case.
It will be at least a couple of months before the Court gives its answer. A win for the teenagers would mean that the COGCC would have to restart its rule making process.