DENVER – The Colorado attorney general asked the state Supreme Court on Thursday to settle a dispute over how much weight public health and the environment should have in regulating the booming oil and gas industry.
Attorney General Cynthia Coffman asked the justices to review a decision by Colorado’s second-highest court, the Court of Appeals, that said health and environmental protection should have a higher priority than regulators currently give it.
That could significantly change Colorado’s long-running battle over the proliferation of hydraulic fracturing wells near fast-growing urban areas, giving opponents more power to argue for safety measures, including restrictions on where wells can be drilled.
Hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – uses a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals to loosen underground formations and release oil and gas. Some say the chemicals are dangerous but the industry says the technique is safe.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry, has traditionally said state law requires it to balance public safety and the environment against responsible oil and gas production.
But the Court of Appeals ruled in March that regulators had misinterpreted the law, and that they are required to ensure public and environmental protections, not balance them against other considerations.
Coffman’s appeal said the lower court had essentially rewritten state law and contradicted previous Supreme Court decisions.
The Supreme Court did not immediately indicate whether it would hear the appeal.
The case stems from a 2013 request by six young people who wanted regulators to require energy companies to show they would not harm human health or the environment before drilling. The commission refused, saying it did not have that authority.
A district court agreed with the commission, but the appeals court sided with the plaintiffs.
Julia Olson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said she was disappointed by Coffman’s decision to appeal.
Coffman, a Republican, filed the appeal at the request of the oil and gas commission but over the objections of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Hickenlooper said Thursday the oil and gas commission does not have the legal authority to appeal the lower court ruling.
Coffman disagreed, saying the commission is independent and has the power to take reasonable actions to carry out its duties. The commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, voted earlier this month to appeal.
Hickenlooper also argued the Court of Appeals ruling would not significantly change how the state regulates the industry because the commission already “elevates” public health and environmental concerns.
Despite his objections, Hickenlooper does not plan to intervene in the appeal, said his spokeswoman, Jacque Montgomery.
The attorney general is an independent elected official in Colorado, and the dispute between Hickenlooper and Coffman is the second time in 18 months they have clashed over filing lawsuits in environmental cases.
In 2015, Coffman joined a lawsuit challenging federal air pollution rules. Hickenlooper objected and asked the state Supreme Court to block Coffman, but the justices refused.
That lawsuit is now before a federal appeals court in Washington.