The Colorado Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether cities can ban fracking, stepping into a high-stakes battle over whether local governments can impose tougher oil and gas rules than the state.
The state's highest court said Monday it would take up cases from Longmont, where voters banned fracking in 2012 and Fort Collins, whose residents opted for a five-year moratorium on the process, also known as hydraulic fracturing, in 2013.
Lower courts overturned the restrictions after the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) filed a lawsuit, saying that regulation is up to the state.
Fracking sees a high-pressure mix of water and chemicals injected underground to break open formations and make it easier to recover oil and gas. It's a widespread practice that has led to an energy boom in many parts of the U.S.
Industry bodies say it is safe. But opponents of fracking worry about health and environmental effects, including the tainting of water with chemicals and even earthquakes.
Kaye Fissinger, president of environmental group Our Longmont, which brought the suit, said her organization was "delighted" that the Supreme Court would hear the case.
"It’s an issue that has profound consequences for our community," Fissinger said. "The toxic chemicals that are used in fracking, many of them are carcinogens and others can disrupt hormone productions, and that can especially hit young babies young children."
Legal battles like Colorado's are not unique. Texas upended a local fracking ban in May in the city of Denton, where residents had voted to prohibit fracking, citing health and environmental concerns.
Our Longmont said that 60 percent of the town’s residents had voted for the ban, in order to “to protect themselves from the harms associated with hydraulic fracturing, including threats to public health and safety, property damage and diminished property values, poor air quality, destruction of landscape, and pollution of drinking and surface water.”
The group was not immediately available for comment on the decision Monday.
Tanya Heikkila, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver who studies fracking policy debates, described the Colorado Supreme Court move as "pretty huge."
To date, the state has generally taken the position that only it has the power to regulate the oil and gas industry, and that local governments can participate in decisions about how drilling and fracking occur but not whether it should be allowed.
"Local governments obviously still want some say in the 'whether,'" Heikkila said. "The Supreme Court decision will clarify that issue."
Meanwhile Colorado’s fracking industry group vowed to continue its campaign against any such ban.
“We look forward to once again having the Supreme Court put further clarification that the ban implemented in Longmont and that the Fort Collin's moratorium are preempted by current law and are thus illegal,” Doug Flanders, COGA spokesman, said in a statement Monday.
Al Jazeera and the Associated Press