A group of Colorado teenagers scored a "huge" victory against the state's fracking industry on Thursday when a three-judge panel ruled that the health of citizens and environment takes precedence over oil and gas interests.
The decision, handed down by the Colorado Court of Appeals on Thursday, requires that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) consider a petition from six youth plaintiffs, which asks the board to suspend the issuance of fracking permits "until it can be done without adversely impacting human health and safety and without impairing Colorado's atmospheric resource and climate system, water, soil, wildlife, and other biological resources."
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, 16-year-old plaintiff and youth director of the Boulder-based Earth Guardians, declared after the ruling: "Our movement to fight for the rights of people and our environment is evolving. From the streets to the courtroom, the voices of the younger generation will be heard, and the legal system is a tool for our resistance. Small wins build up to create massive change."
Martinez and his brother Itzcuahtli Roske-Martinez are joined on the petition by Sonora Brinkley, Aerielle Deering, Trinity Carter, and Emma Bray, who are all members of the young activist group. Their ages currently range from 13 to 16.
The COGCC had rejected the petition (pdf) in 2014 after claiming that state law requires the government to strike a "balance" between fossil fuel development and public health. That interpretation was upheld by the Denver District Court.
On Thursday, however, the three-judge, all-woman panel said the Commission "erred" in its interpretation of the Oil and Gas Conservation Act, finding instead that the law "mandates that the development of oil and gas in Colorado be regulated subject to the protection of public health, safety, and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources."
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It is a "condition that must be fulfilled," they wrote.
"The Commission can no longer decide to prioritize oil and gas development over the health and safety of Coloradans," declared Julia Olson, counsel to the youth plaintiffs and executive director of the legal nonprofit Our Children's Trust.
"This is an enormous victory for these youth," Olson continued. "We look forward to helping the youth of Colorado go back before the Commission on remand."
And Martinez added, "I'm very optimistic about the potential this lawsuit has to protect my Colorado. Now more than ever, we will see people reclaiming the power."
Colorado in recent years has emerged as the epicenter of the anti-fracking movement, with local efforts to ban the toxic drilling practice facing fierce backlash by the state government and deep-pocketed oil and gas industry.
Bruce Baizel, director of the energy program at environmental nonprofit Earthworks, which was not party to the case, said the ruling could have implications for other efforts to regulate fracking in the state. "This shifts health, safety, and welfare concerns above development-as-usual permitting," Baizel told the Denver Post. "Now the state of Colorado, after removing communities' power to ban fracking and drilling themselves, might have to effectively ban fracking inside cities to protect residents' health."