La Plata County Commissioners on Tuesday took no action on whether to weigh in on a lawsuit that seeks a state agency to put public health and the environment above energy interests.
The lawsuit, known as Martinez v. COGCC (Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission), was filed in 2014 by a group of Boulder County teens and advocacy groups, and has gone through several court levels.
Last week, La Plata County Commissioners received a request from plaintiffs to take a stand in the case.
In 2013, the teenagers from Boulder County proposed a new state rule that would prohibit oil and gas drilling “unless the best available science demonstrates, and an independent third-party organization confirms, that drilling can occur in a manner that does not cumulatively, with other actions, impair Colorado’s atmosphere, water, wildlife and land resources, does not adversely impact human health and does not contribute to climate change.”
A year later, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency that regulates oil and gas, denied the proposed rule, saying it would contradict its charge by state lawmakers to foster “responsible, balanced” development “in a manner consistent with protection of public health, safety and welfare, including the protection of the environment and wildlife resources.”
As a result, the Boulder teens teamed with several advocacy groups to appeal the decision in 2014 to the Denver District Court, which ruled in favor of the COGCC.
But when the teenagers appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals, a three-judge panel in March agreed that the commission was wrong to interpret its original mandate as a balancing act of protecting public health and resource development.
“Rather, the clear language (of the COGCC’s mission statement) ... mandates that the development of oil and gas in Colorado be regulated subject to the protection of public health, safety and welfare, including protecting of the environment and wildlife resources,” the ruling said.
The COGCC this spring voted to appeal the state Court of Appeals decision to the Colorado Supreme Court.
La Plata County Commissioners on Tuesday had several options. They could have approved a petition that simply stated they wanted the Supreme Court to hear the case, or they could have approved a petition and sided with either Martinez or the COGCC.
But when La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt’s motion to join the petition in support of Martinez failed 1-2, the board ultimately took no action on the matter.
Most of those who attended the packed La Plata County board room opposed the Boulder teens’ effort, claiming that if additional regulations are placed on an already declining industry, there could be a risk of losing local jobs and tax revenues.
This year, natural gas property tax revenues account for about 30 percent – or $4.6 million – of the county’s total revenue in 2017. But that number has steadily declined, almost 75 percent since 2010, mostly due to cheap international prices.
“The COGCC has thousands upon thousands of rules and regulations,” said Ignacio resident Patti Buck. “And we shouldn’t burden the industry any further.”
Yet, a few residents in the crowd that wanted to ensure stronger protections for human health and the environment over energy interests said critics always claim when new regulations are proposed it will cripple the industry.
“That’s a lot of hot air, always has been,” said former County Commissioner Wally White. “The industry has adapted, and they’ve done a good job of it.”
Before the vote, a number of citizens demanded Lachelt recuse herself because of her previous advocacy work with environmental groups such as San Juan Citizens Alliance and Earthworks, as well as her current position as executive director of Western Leaders Network, a new, nonprofit, bipartisan organization Lachelt founded that supports pro-conservation efforts.
County Attorney Sheryl Rogers assured the board that Lachelt’s affiliation with those organizations did not pose a conflict of interest, drawing the distinction between conflicts of interest and bias.
“I’m sure all three commissioners have bias and were probably elected in fact because of their respective bias,” Rogers said.
Ultimately, Commissioner Julie Westendorff said it’s likely the Supreme Court will hear the COGCC’s petition, and that the matter is likely to come up again as its decision will have an impact on La Plata County.
“Regardless of which side wins, the implications of that decision will have an impact on our county,” she said. “(If the Supreme Court hears it), then we probably will need to weigh in.”