Coffman challengers Salazar, Weiser call attorney general’s appeal decision ‘tone deaf,’ ‘misguided’

Author: Ernest Luning - May 18, 2017 - Updated: May 18, 2017

State Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, and former CU Law School Dean Phil Weiser, both 2018 Democratic candidates for Colorado attorney general. (Salazar photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman, Weiser photo courtesy Phil Weiser)
State Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, and former CU Law School Dean Phil Weiser, both 2018 Democratic candidates for Colorado attorney general. (Salazar photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman, Weiser photo courtesy Phil Weiser)

The two Democrats running for attorney general in next year’s election on Thursday ripped a decision by Republican incumbent Cynthia Coffman to defy Gov. John Hickenlooper by appealing a court decision critics say could shut down oil and gas production in Colorado.

State Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, and Phil Weiser, a former dean of the University of Colorado Law School and Obama administration official, denounced Coffman’s move in strong terms after she filed an appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court in the Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission case.

“(Attorney General) Coffman should be reminded that the Colorado attorney general is the ‘People’s Lawyer,’ first and foremost,” Salazar said in a statement to The Colorado Statesman.

Weiser faulted Coffman’s approach to policy and legal principles, saying in a statement that her decision “undermines our commitment to environmental protection.”

Coffman is asking justices to reconsider a lower court ruling that says the commission, which sets state rules for fossil fuel extraction, should prioritize public health and the environment over its sometimes conflicting charge to encourage oil and gas development.

Hickenlooper told Coffman to abandon the lawsuit on Wednesday, the governor said in a statement, but the attorney general disregarded the request, instead relying on the commission’s recent unanimous vote approving an appeal. She argued in a letter to the governor that he doesn’t have the authority to overrule the commission’s decision, adding that she believes it’s important that the state’s high court settle the legal dispute.

Lawmakers, local officials and more than 1,000 residents deluged Hickenlooper with their requests that he accept the March 23 appeals court ruling. Likewise, advocates for the oil and gas industry and business interests in general have been calling on the governor to defend the longstanding interpretation of state law upended by the decision.

Tensions surrounding oil and gas industry safety have been running high since a house explosion tied to old drilling equipment killed two men in Firestone a month ago.

“(Attorney General) Coffman’s decision is not only tone deaf to the concerns of Coloradans, especially after the tragedy in Firestone, but it serves as an example of how she continues to do the bidding of the oil and gas industry by and through the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission,” Salazar said. “If she’s not suing cities and counties in court, she going after young people who are fighting for the environment and who will inherit this earth.”

A group of children initiated the Martinez case after the commission denied their 2013 request to adopt a rule to halt all oil and gas production in the state until an outside party could determine the activity could be conducted without “impair[ing] Colorado’s atmosphere, water, wildlife, and land resources, does not adversely impact human health, and does not contribute to climate change.”

Salazar said he’s witnessed the commission move toward favoring the oil and gas industry, contrary to statutory requirements to achieve a “balancing act” between the industry, the environment and public safety.

“In my time at the Legislature, I have seen the (commission) act irresponsibility with its powers, tilting the scales toward the industry and away from the environment and human life. Bottom line, I wholly agree with the court of appeals’ decision affirming that the interests of the industry are subordinate to the constitutional and human rights of Coloradans and our beloved environment.”

Referencing lawsuits Coffman has brought to block local governments from imposing stricter rules on oil and gas production than state guidelines allow, Weiser pilloried Coffman as much for her style as the substance of her argument.

“Colorado needs an attorney general who will ensure that we develop appropriate policies that enable safe and environmentally sound approaches to oil and gas development and who is committed to developing those policies through innovative and principled problem solving,” he said in a statement.

“Today’s decision by Attorney General Coffman does not advance sound policy or legal principles, and it undermines our commitment to environmental protection,” Weiser added. “It is in a line with a series of misguided lawsuits by Attorney General Coffman that goes against Colorado’s problem-solving attitude and undermine Gov. Hickenlooper’s leadership in this area.”

Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett, a one-time Democratic nominee for attorney general — he lost a 2010 bid to unseat Republican John Suthers and briefly considered a run against Coffman earlier this year — had a different take.

In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Garnett said he believed Hickenlooper should pursue an appeal because of underlying legal questions that would be resolved one way or another.

“I am 100 percent pro-environment and as concerned about fracking as anyone,” Garnett wrote. “But as a lawyer who has practiced for 35 years and appeared many times in the Colorado appellate courts, I think it is a mistake not to seek Colorado Supreme Court review of the court of appeals decision in the Martinez v. COGC case, and the pressure being put on the Governor in that regard is misdirected. A court of appeals opinion is of some value as precedent, but not nearly as valuable as a Colorado Supreme Court opinion. We have a good supreme court who may well uphold the Court of Appeals. Moreover, the Supreme Court will address this issue eventually one way or another, and this looks like a pretty good record to present to them. Political pressure with regard to court opinions and decisions is rarely a good idea and would be much better focused at electing a legislature more inclined to listen to the public’s concerns.”

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.