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Opinion: Colorado gets it right with Senate Bill 181 — and now the hard work begins

When the legislature created the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 1951, our population was 1.326 million, and hydraulic fracturing was just an entertaining side project for a few swashbuckling geological engineers with a keen interest in explosives.

Today, the state’s population has swelled to 5.761 million, oil and gas production has grown rapidly, and the fracking boom has brought noisy, smelly, disruptive large-scale extraction operations into once-peaceful residential communities.

Joel Minor

Today, the COGCC’s 1951 mission to “foster, encourage, and promote” oil and gas development seems woefully naïve. But that choice has had lasting consequences for the state.

In January, the Colorado Supreme Court confronted the question of what steps the COGCC can take to protect public health from hydraulic fracturing. I represented Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments — medical professionals who explained to the court that a growing body of scientific literature documents the health risks posed by oil and gas sector pollution.

But, based on the words of the statute — many of which remained unchanged since 1951 — the Supreme Court rejected arguments that COGCC should prioritize public health in its decisions.

A lot has changed since 1951, but the COGCC was stuck in time and our health lost out. People affected by oil and gas have tried to secure protections for their communities through local and state regulatory efforts. But the industry has blocked most of these efforts in the courts, exploiting our outdated statutes.  

We are paying the price for our outdated laws with our health. Every summer, Colorado children suffer 32,477 asthma attacks because of ozone pollution caused in large part by oil and gas production.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Colorado School of Public Health researchers have documented widespread headaches, difficulty breathing, birth defects and excess cancer risks for people living near oil and gas wells that emit benzene, formaldehyde and other toxic pollutants into the air.

Meanwhile, the inability of local governments to decide basic land use questions has allowed oil and gas wellpads to show up in places where they just don’t belong. That’s how a massive drilling operation ended up just 828 feet from Greeley’s predominantly Latino Bella Romero Academy. It’s why parents and students at Escuela Bilingüe Pioneer — the elementary school in the Lafayette neighborhood where I grew up – are protesting a nearby proposed oil and gas wellpad.

It was time for the legislature to revisit its 1951 law.  

And that’s exactly what our legislators have done. When Gov. Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 181, he brought our state into the 21st century by changing the COGCC’s mission from “fostering” the industry to “regulating” it.

Despite an industry juggernaut that mobilized to try to crush SB181, Coloradans just won stronger protections from the health impacts of oil and gas drilling that has invaded our neighborhoods, our towns and backyards.

The industry’s campaign lied about SB181, claiming that it would devastate the state’s economy. It won’t. Industry lobbyists also claimed that the process was too rushed to get meaningful stakeholder input. The industry is wrong about that, too.  

SB181 doesn’t create any specific regulations. Instead, it changes the framework for state and local agencies to make decisions. It lets the experts in our state government and on our city councils make the decisions that we elected them to make.

Specifically, SB181 empowers local governments to exercise the same land use authority they have over every other industry. Industry representatives and local residents will have the same ability to shape those local permitting decisions as they do in every other land use decision — from siting a Walmart to renaming a park.

SB181 also requires the COGCC and the Air Quality Control Commission to conduct public rulemaking proceedings in which every stakeholder can have a voice. That is where we will hammer out the details about how to address oil and gas development’s health impacts. State regulators will determine how best to protect public health by reducing pollution, and protect public safety by preventing accidents that can lead to groundwater contamination or even explosions.

In other words, the hard work is still to come. In regulatory proceedings across the state, Coloradans and our elected officials will roll up our sleeves to find ways to protect public health and safety from the harms posed by a dangerous industry.

What is different now that SB181 has passed is that our state and local officials will finally be able to make decisions without being held hostage by an industry that insists it has special rights to pollute, disrupt communities and endanger public health.

Joel Minor is an attorney specializing in clean air and oil and gas issues in Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office.

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