Colorado residents opposed to oil and gas industry operations near people slammed state industry regulators Monday, demanding that they accept a court ruling that says health and safety must be protected before drilling can be done.
They’re furious that drilling continues inside communities. And they’re frustrated by rules that limit local government power over companies and a new law that makes it tougher to get initiatives on the statewide ballot. Civil disobedience, they said, seems their only option.
The roughly two dozen protesters at first vented their rage in testimony at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s regular monthly meeting.
“I’m telling you guys, you aren’t aware how much anger there is in this state,” Denver resident Cleo Dioletis, 70, said. “There are people who want to sell their homes because of fracking and they can’t. Nobody will buy their homes. Thank you for letting me speak. But you people? You disgust me.”
Dioletis still fumed as commissioners called for a break.
When the commissioners returned to take up the business on their agenda, the protesters erupted, raising signs and chanting: “No more drilling! No more permits! Stop the appeal!”
Colorado State Patrol Troopers herded the activists out of the room. When they began pounding on the door, the troopers sent them out of the building.
There doesn’t seem to be an option other than making a scene, activists said. Some were struggling with how best to assert community interests in a way that could make a difference.
“We’re going to have to change our strategy, because this strategy isn’t working,” Be The Change environmental director Phil Doe said. He’s a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee. “Civil disobedience is right around the corner. We have been after this for six fricking years and nothing has changed.”
The national group 350.org was involved in the commotion, supporting local community groups.
Oil and gas industry officials and their attorneys left the room for a breather as the commissioners sat and faced the disruption. After the ruckus was over, COGCC director Matt Lepore invited those who had business before the commission back to the room.
Anti-industry residents have disrupted hearings before, but “nothing like this,” said commissioner Tommy Holton, who presided over the meeting.
Commissioner Bill Hawkins said he and others on the panel are trying to be responsive to public concerns. “ I feel like we need to take some of that into consideration when we make our decisions,” he said. “You have to be practical in how you handle some of the concerns.”
The main cause of outrage was Colorado leaders’ decision to fight the Colorado Court of Appeals’ March 23 ruling that says the environment and public health are preconditions that must be met before industry can extract oil and gas.
State officials directed the COGCC and attorney general to appeal that ruling to the state supreme court – despite the fatal explosion that blew up a home in Firestone. That disaster, and subsequent revelations about underground pipelines and flowlines, has prompted consideration of whether companies should be required to map their lines and make that information available to state regulators and the public.
COGCC staffers continue to issue permits for oil and gas operations and to consider new projects, such as a proposal to drill more than 200 wells in Boulder County.
The court case rose in 2013 when teenagers and attorneys proposed that Colorado not issue any new permits for oil and gas drilling “unless the best available science demonstrates, and an independent third-party organization confirms, that drilling can occur in a manner that does not cumulatively, with other actions, impair Colorado’s atmosphere, water, wildlife, and land resources, does not adversely impact human health and does not contribute to climate change.”
The appeals court judges interpreted the mission of the COGCC to require more than balancing industry interests with protection of people and the environment. The judges reversed a lower court and elevated protection of public health and the environment to “a condition that must be fulfilled” by the state before oil and gas drilling can be done.
State lawmakers created the COGCC to regulate oil and gas development, charging it with fostering “responsible, balanced” development, production and use of oil and gas “in a manner consistent with protection of public health, safety, and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources.”