Colorado's fracking battle goes before state Supreme Court

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Posted: Dec 09, 2015 3:00 PM
Colorado's fracking battle goes before state Supreme Court

DENVER (AP) — Colorado's loud public battle over fracking went before the state Supreme Court on Wednesday as the cities of Longmont and Fort Collins tried to persuade the justices that local governments have the right to ban or delay the drilling technique.

Fracking helped set off an energy boom in Colorado, but it also stirred up a fight over the potential dangers to the environment, public health and property values.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday on two cases: Longmont's outright ban on fracking, approved by voters in 2012, and a five-year moratorium in Fort Collins approved by voters in 2013.

The oil and gas industry sued the cities, and lower court judges ruled both measures were illegal because they contradicted state rules.

It will likely take months for the Supreme Court to issue a ruling, and even then, it won't be the final word. Fracking critics are also asking voters and state regulators to rein in the industry and could take the fight to the Legislature.

Things to know about the fight:

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WHY FRACKING MATTERS:

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, injects a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals to break open underground formations. Combined with other drilling techniques, it opened up previously inaccessible oil and gas reserves and boosted Colorado's economy. The industry says it's safe, but critics worry about danger to the environment and public health from spills and leaks. Others say around-the-clock noise, lights and fumes from drilling rigs make their homes unlivable as oilfields overlap with growing communities.

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IS A FRACKING BAN LEGAL?

Longmont's attorney told the Supreme Court that the city hadn't banned all oil and gas drilling, only fracking, and that energy companies have cost-effective alternatives. Longmont also argued that state law doesn't explicitly allow fracking, so the ban doesn't prohibit anything the state has expressly approved. Attorneys for the industry argued that the Supreme Court has already ruled that state regulations trump local ones in such cases, and that the state has approved fracking because it has written regulations to govern it. They also said the ban infringed on the property rights of people who own oil and gas rights.

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IS A FRACKING MORATORIUM LEGAL?

An attorney for Fort Collins argued that the city hadn't banned fracking, only delayed it to study the health effects. The city also said the industry had not shown that anyone was harmed by the moratorium because no one had applied for state permits for fracking wells in the city. The Oil and Gas Association argued that a five-year moratorium is the same as a five-year ban, so it contradicts state law.

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THE BIG PICTURE:

The oil and gas industry has traditionally been regulated only by state government in Colorado, but local governments and activists are challenging that. Energy companies prefer state control — it means they have only one set of rules to worry about, and the law says the state's job is to foster energy development, not prevent it.

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OTHER BATTLEFIELDS:

The Supreme Court isn't the only place Colorado's fracking war is being fought. The industry is putting up a stiff fight before the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state's rule-making agency, over proposals to give local governments a consulting role but not veto power on drilling sites. A group called Coloradans for Community Rights wants to put a constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot that would give local governments the right to regulate oil and gas, which is sure to bring a powerful counter-campaign from the industry. Another group, 350 Colorado, wants the Legislature to replace the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission with two agencies, one to protect residents from the effects of oil and gas and another to encourage renewable energy.

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Follow Dan Elliott at http://twitter.com/DanElliottAP. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/dan-elliott.