Environmental groups ask state agency leaders to sway oil and gas commission on lawsuit appeal

Author: Joey Bunch - May 24, 2017 - Updated: July 31, 2017

Environmentalists are asking the heads of the state health department and Department of Natural Resources to pressure the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to reconsider its vote to appeal a court decision on drilling permits.

The commission voted on May 1 to appeal a court decision that says they need to balance public health and safety against requests for permits by oil and gas operators. That decision was part of Attorney General Cynthia Coffman’s rationale to file an appeal in the case brought by teenagers and backed by environmental groups.

The way they read the law, the attorney general needs the commission’s approval to appeal its rules to the state Supreme Court. Getting the commission to withdraw its May 1 vote, then, would be a strategic advantage.

The lawsuit was filed in 2013 by six Colorado teenagers asking that the oil and gas regulators to use a “balancing test” to measure public health and safety against the wishes of industry. In March the state Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to have the board reconsider the environmentalists’ request.

By doing so, they would suspend fracking operations while the teens, or the environmental groups backing them, make a case for how such a rule might be applied.

After Coffman said she would press ahead with an appeal, Earthjustice and Conservation Colorado sent a letter Friday asking for an intervention from the commission’s ex-officio members, Larry Wolk, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and Bob Randall, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

Neither responded to a personal e-mail from Colorado Politics to see if they would ask the commission to reconsider.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has somewhat agreed with the environmentalists, saying last week he didn’t think the commission should appeal, because it already substantially does what the lawsuit requests.

His office isn’t onboard with the request by environmentalists to apply pressure on the commission via his state agency leaders, however.

“We have made our position in this matter well-known and believe that it would be inappropriate to apply pressure on this commission to take further action,” said Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman, Jacque Montgomery. “We ask respected civic leaders to serve on our boards and commissions to exercise their independent judgment, and we value and respect their service.”

The governor also said last week that the commission’s vote didn’t constitute seeking the authority for an appeal.

We are frankly perplexed as to why the Governor’s administration has not already taken such a step instead of pursuing the unusual approach of asking the Attorney General to disregard the COGCC’s May 1 decision,” wrote Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado, and Earthjustice lawyer Michael Freeman.

“If the Governor is serious in stating that ‘the court of appeals’ decision does not represent a significant departure from the commission’s current approach,’ it would have been straightforward to simply call for another COGCC vote to reconsider the appeal.”

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.