By Dana Drugmand
The Colorado Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling on Monday and ruled against a set of youth plaintiffs who sought to force the state to consider the impacts on public health and the climate in allowing oil and gas development. In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled in favor of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in Martinez v. COGCC, handing a victory to the oil and gas industry.
“It is so disappointing for the youth and the people of Colorado to hear the decision from the Colorado Supreme Court today. To know that the judges in the highest court of my state believe that the interests of the oil and gas industry come before the public health, safety, and welfare of my fellow Coloradans is shameful,” said 18 year-old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, lead plaintiff in the case and youth director of Earth Guardians, a Boulder-based youth environmental advocacy group.
The case began in 2013, when the group of eight young plaintiffs petitioned the COGCC to take into consideration health and climate impacts of oil and gas development. When the commission rejected the petition, the suit was filed. The young plaintiffs lost the first round in district court, but the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed that decision, finding that it was within the commission’s authority to condition drilling permits on health and environmental impacts.
The commission appealed, backed by industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in October.
“It seemed pretty clear right off the bat that the Supreme Court was more sympathetic with the state’s position,” said Nate Bellinger, staff attorney with Our Children’s Trust and one of the lawyers representing the young plaintiffs.
According to the decision, the commission is required to mitigate environmental impacts to protect public health and welfare, but only after taking into consideration cost-effectiveness and technical feasibility. Oil and gas development cannot be conditioned on preventing adverse health impacts, the court said, and these impacts can only be mitigated if there are no cost or technical issues.
“The [Oil and Gas Conservation] act, as interpreted by the Supreme Court today, is unconstitutional because it allows the state to deprive Coloradans of their health, safety, and basic security. We will not stop supporting and working to protect youth in Colorado in their fight against fossil fuel development,” said Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust.
Olson said the group will petition the legislature instead, but could also continue other legal challenges.
“The [Colorado] General Assembly has a duty to amend the Act to make it abundantly clear that the state has a duty to protect public health and welfare,” said Olson. “Otherwise we need to bring a case challenging the constitutionality of the statute.”
Monday’s decision is the latest setback for youth-led climate lawsuits. Last week, the Oregon Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that the state is not required to prevent climate change and protect natural resources based on the public trust doctrine. Other cases brought by young people in Washington and Alaska were dismissed, but are likely to be appealed.
“I want you all to know that this fight for climate justice is far from over,” said Martinez, who is also a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit Juliana v. United States, which is currently stalled as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals considers the government’s rare interlocutory appeal. “My fellow plaintiffs, youth around the world, and I will continue to stand up for our right to a healthy future.”