Big Oil Backed by Supreme Court

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled in favor of Colorado’s gas and oil industry by reversing an appellate court decision to curtail drilling permits. On Jan. 14, in the high-profile case of Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the court unanimously ruled in favor of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. This commission is a regulatory board funded by Colorado’s oil and gas industry.

This defining ruling returns the authority to regulate public health and environmental concerns surrounding gas and oil production to the COGCC. The commission stated that they will balance public health and environmental concerns while promoting drilling. Their protection of health and the environment will be limited to measures that are deemed “cost-effective” and “technically feasible.” 

“The Supreme Court upheld the Colorado way of doing business, which is to consider several different interests, including fostering the development of oil and natural gas while also protecting our health and safety,” said President of the COGCC Dan Haley, “the plaintiffs in the Martinez v. COGCC case ignored, and attempted to disrupt, decades of regulatory precedent and legal oversight.”

Photo Courtesy of Catalyst Archives

The Martinez group, led by Boulder teen Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, first petitioned the court in 2013, asking to implement a state regulation that would deny permits for wells that would impair Colorado’s environment, detract from the state’s public health, and contribute to climate change. The petition was approved in 2017. 

In May 2018, the COGCC and the American Petroleum Institute and Colorado Petroleum Association filed for writ of certiorari, asking the Colorado Supreme Court to hear their case. Governor John Hickenlooper then asked the court not to pursue the appeal; however, this decision was overruled by then Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman. Thus, in 2019, the Supreme Court heard the COGCC case and reversed the appellate court ruling. 

 Governor Jared Polis called the Supreme Court decision “disappointing.” 

According to the Colorado Independent, oil and gas companies have more than 56,000 wells in Colorado and have plans for thousands more. Colorado is lucrative for oil and gas production not only because of its oil-rich land, but also because of its pro-business policies.

However, as the population and urban development of the Front Range continues to grow and spread, there have been more conflicts between oil operations and the public. These concerns have surfaced in an era of heightened concern about climate change and environmental degradation linked to fossil fuel exploitation. 

Therefore, the Martinez case is a timely embodiment of the struggle Colorado is facing. It brings to light a larger question going forth: with a booming population and finite resources, how will Colorado balance the economic benefits of oil with its environmental and public health costs?  

Some have taken the decision of the Supreme Court as an indication that Colorado will continue to side with oil. The Martinez case also sets a precedent for future litigation.

However, in reaction to the decision, politicians from both sides of the aisle are primed to take retaliatory action. 

“The Supreme Court interpreted the law wrong today, but we’re going to do everything we can to make it right,” said Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, in an interview with the Colorado Independent. “We probably would have gone back to the legislature to clarify things in law anyway, and so we’re going to get rid of that conflict of interest. We need to make sure health and safety are always prioritized above everything else.”

“While the just-announced Martinez decision is disappointing, it provides us at the [legislature] an opportunity to finally put health and safety first with oil and gas,” tweeted Sen. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette. “I am working on a bill to do exactly that.”

According to the National Law Review, unsatisfied legislators are already drafting bills to counteract the Martinez decision and alter the balance of the current law to bring more regulatory power to the public. 

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