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Wildlife rule gets Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission endorsement

Phillip YatesPost Independent StaffGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) on Monday tentatively endorsed a rule requiring oil and gas companies to consult with the Colorado Division of Wildlife if they plan to drill in sensitive wildlife areas.That consultation would identify any conditions companies would have to follow if they operate in certain Colorado wildlife habitat areas, which include locations that provide winter range for elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep. The conditions would be guided by a list of basin-specific best management practices. Those techniques are expected to be identified during a later stakeholder process.Oil and gas companies would not have to consult with the DOW under several scenarios, such as if a company drafts a comprehensive drilling plan or if it limits its density.The commission’s decision to approve the consultation rule came after hours of debate that touched on several different sections of proposed wildlife rules. The proposed wildlife regulations have been at the center of controversy surrounding the current rule-making process for the state’s oil and gas industry. Tom Remington, the director of the DOW, said finding the right balance for the wildlife rules has been a “long journey.” He added there are issues that will have to be addressed down the road. However, he said the rules before the commission on Monday were acceptable to the agency.”We very much support these rules and would encourage you to do so as well,” Remington said.One wildlife rule the commission did not get to on Monday may prohibit companies from conducting activities like construction, drilling and completion, and laying of pipeline in “restricted surface occupancy” (RSO) areas.Those RSO locations include areas where bighorn sheep reproduce and bald eagles nest. It would also encompass areas within 300 feet of any stream that is home to Colorado cutthroat trout or 300 feet within any stream or lake designated by the DOW as “gold medal.”As with the consultation rule, companies could avoid the RSO rule if they work with the COGCC director, demonstrate that wildlife is not present in the targeted drilling area, gain an exemption from the DOW or develop a comprehensive drilling plan for the area. Companies could also possibly avoid it if they show that it’s not technically or economically feasible to comply with the rule.Debate over what areas may be tagged with a RSO designation took up a large part of the commission’s Monday hearing. Some commissioners wanted to include more riparian areas under the RSO designation. So far, Colorado’s oil and gas commission has given tentative approval to about 82 new rules for the state’s oil and gas industry during six hearings in August and last week. Commission members based much of their provisional votes on rule language drafted by agency staff.COGCC staff began work on the new rules in August of last year. That process began because of legislation the legislature passed last year that required the agency to expand its focus to consider public health and wildlife impacts, and require the use of best management practices to minimize harm from oil and gas development.

Howard Boigan, a representative of the oil and gas industry at Monday’s hearing, said the industry appreciated that the COGCC eliminated several major problems with the proposed rules, like a proposed 90-day drilling restriction. That had been the focus of significant industry criticism.However, Boigan added the industry still had significant concerns. Those concerns centered around uncertainty regarding consultation in sensitive wildlife habitats, possible federal government pre-emption of any rules that COGCC may approve and the possible prohibition of oil and gas activities in the “restricted surface occupancy areas.” He said the rules surrounding the latter issue contained significant ambiguities.”In sum, the proposed (restricted surface occupancy) rules are simply not ready for prime time,” he said.Dave Neslin, acting director of the COGCC, said he disagreed with industry’s contention that rules approved by the COGCC commission would be pre-empted by the federal government. He said the agency will speak with the Bureau of Land Management after the commission may approve any rules to reach an accord about how state and federal rules may be integrated on federal lands.Neslin added that a “plain reading” of legislation passed last year directs the COGCC to adopt rules to minimize adverse impacts to wildlife resources from oil and gas development.”That is what the RSO rule does,” he said.Michael Freeman, who represented environmental interests at Monday’s hearing, said those groups had a vigorous debate whether to support the proposed wildlife rules. He jokingly told the commission they “could have been a lot worse.””We think the rules represent a necessary first step,” he said. “We think (they) would likely have a positive impact on wildlife in Colorado.”The commission is set to deliberate more rules today.Contact Phillip Yates: 384-9117pyates@postindependent.comPost Independent, Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO


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