Student Submission: Colorado Youth Score Legal Victory Against Fracking

               April 11, 2017 – A three-judge appeals court ruled in favor of the Boulder-based youth activist group, Earth Guardians, determining that the health of Colorado citizens and the environment takes precedent over oil and gas interests. The petition requests for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) suspend 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.” The plaintiffs were all members of the youth activist group ages between 13 and 16.

               The ruling came after voters passed State Constitution Amendment 71 in the November elections, making the Colorado constitution harder for citizens to amend. Known as ‘Raise the Bar,’ the campaign to approve this amendment raised five times more funding than its opposition, including millions from energy interests.

               This part of the country has a long history of disasters resulting from fossil fuel extraction, but these incidents are increasing in scale and frequency at an alarming rate. Judges Terry Fox and JoAnn Vogt ruled to bring the case back to the district court to reconsider the petition.

               The state commission that controls new extraction permits, COGCC, has close ties to the fossil fuel industry. Actually, that’s an understatement – Five of the nine commissioners own drilling companies, and two of them are sitting officers of oil and gas companies. Supporters say that it is best to have technical experts in those positions; critics say it is a recipe for abuse of power.

               The latest legal battle demonstrates that many Coloradans value the natural beauty of their state more than the economic benefits that may come with oil and gas drilling. The following is an open letter to Commissioner Larry Wolk, MD, Executive Director of Department of Public Health and Environment:

Dear Dr. Larry Wolk:

               Following the Court of Appeals decision ruling that the health of citizens and the environment take precedent over oil and gas interests; I implore you to consider the mounting evidence that large-scale geologic disturbances are caused by petroleum extraction.

               Firstly, citizens living near multiplying hydraulic fracturing operations across this state deserve to know what the ingredients of this chemical mixture are, so that we can be prepared for the health defects that may result. Some volatile organic compounds such as benzene, xylene, and toluene have been detected, all of which are known to adversely affect human health. The so-called “Haliburton Loophole” allows oil companies to keep the list of over 600 different chemicals used in national fracking operations a secret from the public. This list of ingredients may be vital to understanding the long-term effects of gas extraction in our communities. The Commission has the authority to pressure major gas companies to reveal what is being pumped into our land.

               Secondly, in our state perhaps the more urgent mystery is the alarming uptick in seismic activity over the last 10 years.  Earthquake swarms up to 4.5 on the Richter scale have struck southern Colorado and the Four Corners in the last few years, and increasing incidents from Oklahoma to Front Range have been linked to methods of wastewater injection. Colorado-based National Earthquake Information Center confirmed that Oklahoma had a “millennium’s worth of earthquakes in two years,” and the rate of nearly one trillion barrels of water being injected into wells every year is to blame. Our state has been thus far spared from damaging earthquake swarm events, but the US Geologic Survey estimates that we are at 100X greater risk of large earthquake compared to just 10 years ago. Can we afford to continue with the same policies in light of these findings?

               The US Geological Survey has concluded beyond the shadow of a doubt that wastewater injection – when at high enough pressure and in large enough volumes – causes small seismic shifts between rock layers miles below the surface, which can cascade into catastrophic earthquakes and landslides. Not all wastewater injection wells cause earthquakes. However, to restrict current and future fluid injection for oil extraction, comprehensive limits on the amount of wastewater injection allowed in a given area is necessary.  

               With the growth of the oil and gas extraction industry has come an economic boom. But what if the earthquakes keep growing like they have in Oklahoma? Pollution and property damage from earthquakes are bad for the economy.

               The petition by Earth Guardians indicates the rising desire Coloradans have to prevent local bans on extraction and property right lawsuits. What will Colorado look like decades from now if this exploitation continues at its current rate?

               In short, the people of this state, especially those looking forward to inheriting it, are much less concerned with the health of the petroleum industry than the health of their families. I bid this commission to take heed of this recent decision, and to do the utmost to uphold the spirit of its call.

Sincerely,Concerned Colorado Youth:

Jay Belmonarch, Brenda Barron, Mait Baldwin, Albert Travaglini

If you would like to encourage the COGCC to protect our communities and our environment contact them: