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Colorado Supreme Court rebuffs health groups on oil-gas

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday that state law doesn't allow regulators to make public health and the environment their top priority when setting rules for oil and gas drilling.

DENVER — The Colorado Supreme Court says state law doesn't allow regulators to make public health and the environment their top priority when setting rules for oil and gas drilling.

The ruling released Monday said state law requires the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to "foster" oil and gas production while protecting public health and the environment. But the court says regulators must take into account whether those protections are cost-effective and technically feasible.

The ruling is a victory for the industry.

Community advocates and environmental groups wanted the court to rule that health and the environment should take precedence over oil and gas production. That could have brought tougher rules on where companies can drill.

The plaintiff in the case, 18-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez was just 13 when he started the petition five years ago. He said the oil and gas industry should not expect him to stop after the setback.

"We've been taking L's for a minute, from Prop 112 and the over $40 million that we were outspent by the industry to a variety of different things," he told 9NEWS. "From Gov. Hickenlooper to Jared Polis, many of them are progressive Democrats - are clamming and saying a lot without following up."

To Martinez, the Colorado Supreme Court got hung up on a technicality of the law in their ruling - saying the oil and gas commission didn't have the authority to put the health and well-being of Coloradans over drilling.

"To me, the message for all sides here is - the courts will not save you," Martinez continued. "You have to take this fight up in the political branches of government."

He explained he didn't think the court should be deciding this issue anyway; instead, he said, it should be put up for a vote in the state legislature.

"[The ruling] might well be seen as a message to the legislature - please make the policy decisions that you need to make on this issue."

Colorado's newly-elected Attorney General Phil Weiser released a statement Monday afternoon pledging "to work with state agencies, local communities to ensure oil/gas development is consistent with public health, safety and environment."

He said in his statement that he agreed with the state Supreme Court's ruling that the commission could have the power to put the health and well-being of Coloradans over drilling.

Tighter state rules are on the horizon, despite Monday's ruling, say Gov. Jared Polis and top state Democrats, according to Colorado Politics.

"While I'm disappointed by today's ruling, it only highlights the need to work with the Legislature and the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission to more safely develop our state's natural resources and protect our citizens from harm," Polis said in a statement, per Colorado Politics.

Attempts to push back or mandate where oil and gas wells can and cannot be has long been an issue in the state. Perhaps the most recent, most contentious issue before voters was Proposition 112.

That proposition, which was on the November ballot failed. It would have mandated all buffer zones between oil and gas development and "occupied structures" as well as "vulnerable areas" to 1,000 feet instead of the state-mandated 500 feet.

In a move cheered by the Colorado Petroleum Council and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association from December, the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission increased the setbacks between new wells and schools or child care facilities. 

Even then, according to Colorado Politics, some advocacy groups vowed to continue pursuing legislation to further increase buffer zones. The new rules put in place in December require a 1,000-foot setback from school buildings, outdoor buildings, modular school buildings, playgrounds and sports fields. Also included are play areas associated with child care facilities.

The December measure was hailed as a "gesture of good faith" by oil and gas advocacy groups.

The full ruling handed down Monday can be read at this link.

At noon on Monday, Speaker of the State House KC Becker released a statement on behalf of Colorado House Democrats saying she was frustrated with the ruling.

The statement went on to point out that House Democrats have tried to "address the health and safety concerns" related to oil and gas, but all their attempts have recently died in the previously Republican-controlled state Senate. Democrats took a majority in the Senate after the November midterms.

A statement released by Tracee Bentley, Colorado Petroleum Council's executive director, hailed the ruling as a positive for all Coloradans.

"We are confident in Colorado’s energy future and the ability of the Colorado natural gas and oil industry’s ability to continue to reshape the global energy balance," the statement reads, "fueling an American manufacturing revival and leading the world in environmental progress."

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