Colorado's oil and gas development must now consider public health impactsColorado regulators must now consider the impacts of oil drilling on public health and the climate, according to a new law. Photo credit: George Frey/Getty Images

By Dana Drugmand

Colorado has passed a law requiring state regulators to prioritize public health and the environment in regulating oil and gas operations, drawing sharp criticism from the fossil fuel industry and praise from a group of young people who had unsuccessfully sued the state trying to force those regulations.

Gov. Jared Polis signed the law on Tuesday, requiring the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to prioritize protecting public health, the climate and environment in issuing permits for oil and gas operations. The youth-led lawsuit Martinez v. COGCC had sought exactly that, but the Colorado Supreme Court rejected that argument in dismissing the case in January.

Since then, Polis, a Democrat who ran on a pro-climate platform, took office and the legislation was quickly passed.

As stated in the bill, Section 11 “requires the commission to protect and minimize adverse impacts to public health, safety, and welfare, the environment, and wildlife resources and protect against adverse environmental impacts on any air, water, soil, or biological resource resulting from oil and gas operations.” The law also establishes local governments’ authority to regulate siting of oil and gas development to minimize adverse impacts.

The youth lawsuit, which was supported by the legal advocacy nonprofit Our Children’s Trust, was unsuccessful because the Supreme Court said previous regulations were unclear about how to balance public health concerns with the development of resource. The new law addresses this perceived ambiguity, acknowledging that the “[Oil and Gas Conservation] Act has been construed to impose a balancing test between fostering oil and gas development and protecting the public health, safety, and welfare.” But the new law clarifies that instead of a balancing test, the commission must protect public health, welfare and the environment.

“Coloradans, and the Colorado General Assembly, have made clear that they have had enough of unchecked oil and gas development that is contaminating the air they breathe, the water they drink, endangering their homes and lives, and causing climate change,” Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust, said in a statement. “There is more work ahead to ensure that the Commission complies with this clear statutory mandate but there is no question that this bill is a big win for the youth plaintiffs and all Coloradans.”

The oil and gas industry criticized the bill, which it said “fundamentally alters the natural gas and oil industry’s future in the State of Colorado.” A Colorado Petroleum Council spokesman called the bill “deeply flawed” and said it “remains a threat to one of the foundations of Colorado’s economy.”

The new law makes other adjustments to the existing oil and gas statute. It directs the air quality commission to adopt rules to minimize emissions of methane, volatile organic compounds and nitrous oxides. It repeals an exemption for the industry from counties’ authority to regulate noise, and repeals the requirement that the COGCC take into consideration cost-effectiveness and technical feasibility. It also alters the composition of the COGCC, reducing the industry representation to one member and requiring other members to have expertise in wildlife and environmental protection, soil conservation, and public health.

“​I have been fighting for the protection of public health, safety, welfare, and land of Coloradans for seven years. This clear law, that so many of us worked so hard for, is an important start,” said Emma Bray, 19-year-old plaintiff in Martinez v. COGCC. “Now we need to hold the Commission accountable if we want to protect the environment and the futures of young people like me.”

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