Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission

Co-author Niloufar Hafizi

The Colorado oil and gas industry breathed a collective sigh of relief when the state Supreme Court announced its unanimous decision in Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission v. Martinez. The court sided with the Commission in rejecting a proposed rule by a group of teenage plaintiffs that would have precluded the Commission from issuing oil and gas drilling permits “unless the best available science demonstrates, and an independent, third-party conforms, that drilling can occur in a manner that does not cumulatively … impair Colorado’s atmosphere, water, wildlife, and water resources, does not adversely impact human health, and does not contribute to climate change” (Notice the skillful use of “and” and not “or”).

After denying the request the Commission prevailed at the district court. The plaintiffs won a split court of appeals decision in which the majority concluded that the enabling statute – the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Act – authorized the Commission to condition a drilling permit on a finding of no adverse cumulative impacts to public health and the environment, and that the Commission had improperly refused to make a rule that was within its power.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court upheld the Commission’s ruling, focusing on the Commission’s primary reason for refusing the proposal: It did not have the statutory authority to impose the condition of “no cumulative adverse impacts” on a drilling permit application. The enabling statute identified multiple policy goals for the agency and contained a declaration of purpose stating how it was “in the public interest to…[f]oster the responsible, balanced development, production, and utilization of the natural resources of oil and gas in the state of Colorado in a manner consistent with protection of public health, safety, and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources.” [emphasis added] The Commission interpreted that language as a requirement to balance oil and gas production with the other concerns. The plaintiffs argued that “in a manner consistent with” is the equivalent of “subject to”.

The Court looked at legislative history, legislators’ comments, and the entire statute to conclude that the Commission “is required…to foster the development of oil and gas resources, protecting and enforcing the rights of owners and producers” while taking steps to, as the statue puts it, “ … to prevent and mitigate significant adverse environmental impacts to the extent necessary to protect public health, safety, and welfare, but only after taking into consideration cost-effectiveness and technical feasibility.”

After analyzing the Act, the court found that the Commission had been correct in determining that the proposed rule was outside its statutory authority.

Takeaways

  • In light of this suit and Proposition 112, one can conclude that a large and dedicated group of environmentalists is out to put an end to the Colorado oil and gas industry.
  • This was a statutory construction case, not a referendum on what the Supreme Court thinks about oil and gas drilling.
  • The battle at the Commission isn’t over. One reason for denying the proposed rule was that the commission is working with the Colorado Department of Health to address the plaintiffs’ concerns.
  • The youthful antagonists were represented by the same group of actors who are behind Juliana v. U. S., now on an appeal by the government in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That’s the case asserting that the federal government’s failure to reduce carbon emissions violates plaintiffs’ constitutional rights and the government’s obligations as a public trustee.

We will have a more in-depth report on Martinez soon.

In the meantime, let us despair over the Debacle in the Dome.