Coffman to the rescue

It’s hard to imagine Gov. John Hickenlooper equivocating on the direction of an important case regarding oil and gas regulation in the state if recent deadly explosions near Firestone and Mead hadn’t scrambled conventional thinking on the matter.

Hickenlooper can’t run for re-election. One would think that fact would embolden him to take a stand on how the state’s oil and gas commission does its job. Instead, he’s mired in political quicksand and waffling in his response to a recent court ruling that could dramatically change the way Colorado regulates the state’s oil and gas industry.

First, some background: The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission rejected a rulemaking request by six youths who want oil and gas development suspended until it can be shown it wouldn’t harm the public or environment or contribute to climate change. The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that the COGCC used an errant rationale in rejecting the request.

As the Sentinel’s Dennis Webb reported, the appeals court found that the law requires that a priority be placed on protecting the health and environment. That’s a departure from the COGCC’s long-held approach to trying to strike a balance between oil and gas development and public health, safety and welfare.

When the COGCC decided to appeal the case on May 1, environmentalists — with the Firestone explosion still fresh in the public’s mind — applied political pressure to the governor’s office to reverse that decision. Hickenlooper said in a statement that while he didn’t believe an appeal was necessary, he wouldn’t interfere in the COGCC’s decision. But he also asked the state’s attorney general, Cynthia Coffman, to disregard the COGCC’s decision to appeal — effectively asking to let the ruling stand, which would change the regulatory orientation of the commission.

When Coffman refused, the governor showed no signs of fighting her, leaving the public in a twist. Either the governor believes that public health and environmental concerns should drive COGCC decisions — thus necessitating a fight over who speaks for the state — or that the COGCC was right to appeal, in which case he should have thrown his weight behind the AG’s intent to argue on behalf of the COGCC before the state Supreme Court.

The governor is trying to have it both ways on an issue that requires a bold declaration. Under the standard reinforced by the court ruling, an argument could be made that any level of development carries some level of risk. The only way to make health and the environment the pre-eminent considerations of COGCC rules is to prohibit oil and gas-related activity.

Coffman is right to seek some clarity on this issue. Should the appellate rule stand, there would be no balancing of oil and gas development with the public health and safety. The state has an interest in the efficient and fair development of oil and gas resources and the ruling creates too much uncertainty to go unchallenged.


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