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It’s a New Day in Colorado as the State Finally Passes Meaningful Oil and Gas Regulation

With SB 181, Colorado begins the hard work of regulating the health impacts of oil and gas extraction for local communities

Earthjustice attorney Joel Minor works to protect communities from the harmful impacts of energy development

Earthjustice attorney Joel Minor works to protect communities from the harmful impacts of energy development

Matt Nager for Earthjustice

A version of this piece originally ran in the Colorado Sun.

When the Legislature created the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 1951, the state’s population was 1.3 million, and hydraulic fracturing was just an entertaining side project for a few swashbuckling geological engineers with a keen interest in explosives.

Today, the state’s population has swelled to 5.8 million, oil and gas production has grown rapidly, and the fracking boom has brought noisy, smelly, disruptive large-scale extraction operations into once-peaceful residential communities.

Now the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s 1951 mission to “foster, encourage, and promote” oil and gas development seems woefully naïve. That choice has had lasting, harmful consequences for the state.

In January, the Colorado Supreme Court confronted the question of what steps the agency can take to protect public health from hydraulic fracturing. I represented Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments – medical professionals who explained to the court that a growing body of scientific literature documents the health risks posed by oil and gas sector pollution.

But, the Supreme Court rejected arguments that the agency should prioritize public health in its decisions based on the words of the statute – many of which remained unchanged since 1951.

For years, people affected by oil and gas have tried to secure protections for their communities through local and state regulatory efforts. But the industry has blocked most of these efforts in the courts, exploiting the outdated statutes.

Ballot measures to change the laws have been overwhelmed by multimillion-dollar opposition campaigns from the industry.

Coloradans have been paying the price for our outdated laws with our health.

Every summer, Colorado children suffer 32,477 asthma attacks because of ozone pollution caused in large part by oil and gas production. Colorado School of Public Health researchers have documented widespread headaches, difficulty breathing, birth defects, and excess cancer risks for people living near oil and gas wells that emit benzene, formaldehyde and other toxic pollutants into the air.

Meanwhile, the inability of local governments to decide basic land use questions has allowed oil and gas wellpads in places where they don’t belong. That’s how a massive drilling operation ended up just 828 feet from Greeley’s predominantly Latino Bella Romero Academy. It’s why parents and students at Escuela Bilingüe Pioneer – the elementary school in the Lafayette neighborhood where I grew up – are protesting a proposed oil and gas wellpad nearby.

It was time for the Legislature to revisit its 1951 law.  And they did.

When Gov. Polis signed Senate Bill 181, he brought our state into the 21st century by changing the COGCC’s mission from “fostering” the industry to “regulating” it.

Despite an industry juggernaut that mobilized to try to crush SB 181, Coloradans just won stronger protections from the health impacts of oil and gas drilling that has invaded our neighborhoods, our towns and backyards. Thousands of Earthjustice supporters in Colorado emailed and called their legislators urging them to support this essential bill - an important counterbalance to the oil industry’s well-funded campaign.

Earthjustice staff attorney Robin Cooley visits an oil rig site.
Earthjustice staff attorney Robin Cooley visits an oil rig site.
Matt Nager for Earthjustice

The industry’s campaign lied about SB 181, claiming that it would devastate the state’s economy. It won’t. Industry lobbyists also claimed that the process was too rushed to get meaningful stakeholder input. The industry is wrong about that, too. 

SB 181 doesn’t create any specific regulations. Instead, it changes the framework for state and local agencies to make decisions. It lets the experts in our state government and on our city councils make the decisions that we elected them to make.

To put it another way, oil and gas companies will finally have to follow the same rules everyone else does. SB 181 empowers local governments to exercise the same land use authority they have over every other industry. Industry representatives and local residents will be on a level playing field in shaping local permitting decisions, just as they are in every other land use decision – from approving a site for a Walmart to renaming a park.

SB 181 also requires our state regulators to conduct public rulemaking proceedings in which everyone can have a voice. That is where we will hammer out the details about how to address oil and gas development’s health impacts. State agencies will determine how best to protect public health by reducing pollution, and protect public safety by preventing accidents that can lead to groundwater contamination or even explosions.

In other words, the hard work is still to come. If industry goes to court to try to reverse SB 181’s gains, Earthjustice will be there to defend the bill’s common sense focus on health and safety.  Meanwhile, in regulatory proceedings across the state, Earthjustice will collaborate with community partners, industry, and elected officials to find ways to protect public health and safety from the harms posed by a dangerous industry.

What is different now is that Colorado’s state and local officials will no longer be held hostage by an industry that insists it has special rights to pollute, disrupt communities and endanger public health.

Tags:  Air, Clean Energy, Gas, Oil
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