Colorado High Court Rules Local Bans on Fracking Illegal

Updated May 2, 2016 5:15 p.m. ET

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday that municipalities can’t bar hydraulic fracturing, a long awaited decision in a legal battle that has rippled across this energy rich state.

In a pair of rulings, Colorado’s high court found that measures passed by the cities of Fort Collins and Longmont that sought to halt the controversial drilling technique known as fracking “were preempted by state law and, therefore… invalid and unenforceable.”

The decisions uphold lower court rulings and come amid a long-running battle over fracking across northeastern Colorado, which sits atop a large shale formation. In recent years, cities along the state’s fast growing Front Range have sought to limit the practice amid concerns that drilling is taking place too close to population centers and complaints from environmental groups.

The legal dispute dates back to 2012, when voters in Longmont approved a ban on fracking. A year later, Fort Collins voters passed a five-year moratorium on the practice.

But two district court judges subsequently ruled that the bans were illegal under state law, after the Colorado Oil & Gas Association filed a pair of lawsuits seeking to overturn them. The Supreme Court took up the case after both cities appealed.

In a statement, Fort Collins said that while it was still reviewing the ruling, “it is clear that the Supreme Court has found that the Fort Collins moratorium on hydraulic fracturing is in operational conflict with Colorado law.”

Longmont Mayor Dennis Coombs said, “The case did not end as the city hoped, but we respect the Supreme Court’s decision.”

Energy industry groups, meanwhile, lauded the decisions.

“This is not just a win for the energy industry but for the people of Colorado who rely on affordable and dependable energy and a strong economy,” said Dan Haley, president and chief executive of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association. “It sends a strong message to anyone trying to drive this vital industry out of the state that those efforts will not be tolerated.

The American Petroleum Institute said the ruling “protects private property rights, which are a main driver for the energy renaissance in this country.”

The fight over fracking also has unfolded elsewhere around the country as municipalities have similarly sought to limit or bar fracking and the energy industry has tried to beat back such efforts.

Last year, for example, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed a law prohibiting fracking bans, making it harder for local municipalities to limit where oil and gas wells are drilled. The measure was passed in response to a fracking ban passed by the north Texas city of Denton.

Other states have taken a variety of stances on fracking, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In 2015, New York banned fracking statewide. Conversely, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled last year that the state has the exclusive authority to permit oil and gas drilling, limiting local government power on the issue.

The debate over fracking has been especially charged in Colorado. In 2014, Gov. John W. Hickenlooper, a Democrat, convened a task force to deal with the issue amid a controversial push to ban fracking statewide. The group completed its work last year but didn’t resolve the role of local governments in limiting drilling.

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