The Legal Foundations of Extractive Power


Over the last decade, the United States has become the world’s top producer and leading exporter of oil and gas—a change with dramatic geopolitical and climate implications. At the root of this ascendency is a legal framework around oil and gas extraction in the United States that empowers extractive industry to dismantle community opposition, undermine local governance, and entrench extraction in communities over time. Exercising this power creates conditions of domination and dependency in communities where oil and gas extraction occurs. These conditions, in turn, build social and political support for continued extraction.

This Article charts the legal foundations of the process described above to highlight law’s role in building the social and political conditions for continued fossil fuel extraction in the era of climate crisis. Drawing on the experiences of Colorado communities, this Article offers two contributions. First, I articulate how legal frameworks align to grant industry power over communities targeted for extraction and chart this power’s effects. Legal frameworks that facilitate oil and gas extraction allow industry to reorder systems of social and political authority in communities where extraction occurs. This process creates conditions of industry domination and community dependence on extraction legitimized by law. These conditions, in turn, build political support for continued extraction—a dynamic that links climate policy with the legal structures of extraction in ways that legal scholarship and policy advocacy have largely overlooked. Second, I apply this understanding to explain why prominent oil and gas law reforms adopted in Colorado have failed. I use this example to reorient ongoing debates in oil and gas law toward reforms that target the legal supports of extractive industry’s social and political power.

About the Author

Assistant Professor of Law, University of Denver Sturm College of Law.