Commission appeals ruling, seeks clarity on its legal responsibilities
State oil and gas regulators are asking the Colorado Supreme Court to review a court ruling saying it is obligated to protect public health, safety and welfare as a condition of allowing oil and gas development.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s action Monday came after some Front Range residents questioned appealing the ruling in light of the safety concerns raised by a home explosion April 17 in the city of Firestone. The explosion killed two men working on a water heater and injured a woman, and the Commission is helping look into whether an oil and gas well 178 feet from the home may have been at fault.
The Colorado Court of Appeals in March ruled 2-1 that the Commission has been incorrect in its long-held position that state law requires it to strike a balance between energy development and protection of public health, safety and welfare. The court said the statute’s requirement to provide for balanced development in a manner consistent with such protections “does not indicate a balancing test but rather a condition that must be fulfilled.”
The court found that the Commission relied on the incorrect interpretation in its rationale for rejecting a request by six youths that it suspend oil and gas development until it can be shown that the activity wouldn’t harm public health, wildlife and the environment.
About 15 people voiced concerns to the Commission on Monday about the home explosion, with some also referring to the appeals court ruling. Lauren Swain of Denver said she couldn’t believe it would consider appealing the ruling.
“How dare you even contemplate not prioritizing our health and safety? You should not permit another single well until you figure out how to do that,” Swain said
Members of the Commission said considering the split decision by judges at the appeals court level and the public comments it heard Monday, it would be best to get clarity and guidance from the high court.
Commission member Bob Randall, who also is director of the state Department of Natural Resources, said the decision to appeal doesn’t indicate any indifference to public health, safety and welfare. The appeal “doesn’t reflect a sentiment that some level of degradation of those values is acceptable,” he said.
The Commission is assisting the local fire department with the investigation into the explosion, and investigators believe there is no immediate threat to other homes in the area. But Denver oil and gas activist Wes Wilson said Monday that an independent investigation is needed due to the public’s lack of trust in the Commission and the lack of oil and gas expertise in the fire department.
Others criticized things such as the week’s delay in authorities telling the public the explosion could be related to the well, and the lack of state requirements for minimum setbacks between new homes and existing wells. The well near the Firestone home was drilled in 1993, before the home was built.
The Commission has rules generally requiring at least a 500-foot setback between new wells and existing homes. But the agency’s director, Matt Lepore, said the state can’t overrule local jurisdictions when it comes to how close homes can be built to wells.