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Colorado oil, gas rules getting regional attention

Judith Kohler
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Wildlife advocates in the Rockies who want a balance between protecting wildlife and energy development are watching as Colorado considers rules mandating that balance.

Colorado legislators are considering about 100 new and revised regulations to give more weight to the environment, public health and safety, and wildlife when approving oil and gas development.

The Colorado House was set to debate the rules Thursday. It’s one of the last steps in a process that began in 2007 when lawmakers overwhelmingly approved two bills mandating updated regulations in the face of record natural gas drilling.

Regional and national conservation groups following the energy boom that has rippled through the Rockies the past few years are watching what happens to Colorado’s regulations.

“What’s happened in Colorado is actually pretty groundbreaking,” said Ben Lamb of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “For the first time in a very, very long time, a state took a stance on oil and gas development that was contrary to the industry’s wishes and did so in a very overwhelming manner.”

Supporters of the rules say they’re overdue after record gas drilling. Last year, Colorado issued a record 8,027 oil and gas drilling permits, nearly double the 4,323 approved in 2005. Most of the permits were for natural gas. Tens of thousands of news wells in addition to the nearly 38,000 already producing are forecast over the next 20 or so years.

But during development of the rules, the energy boom deflated. Natural gas prices plummeted, credit dried up, and the global economy went into free fall. Add to that the lack of pipeline capacity in the Rocky Mountains that further drives down area producers’ profits.

The oil and gas rules, which will take effect April 1 if they pass the Legislature, will make things worse by driving up costs and increasing wait times for drilling permits, industry representatives and supporters argue. Already, they say, uncertainty about how the rules will play out on the ground have led companies to reduce investment in Colorado, idle drilling rigs and cut jobs.

“The industry in Colorado right now is under attack by these regulations,” said Nate Strauch, spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group.

Provisions protecting fish and western Colorado’s big-game herds, some of the country’s largest, have been assailed by trade groups and companies. Strauch said the industry objects to a rule that would give state health and wildlife officials a chance to appeal decisions by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the main regulatory body, because it could indefinitely delay approval of projects.

The rules would also allow companies to appeal decisions.

Energy companies worry that other states will adopt similar regulations, Strauch said. If Colorado delayed or shelved the rules, he said he believes companies would rev up their business in the state again.

“If that uncertainty were completely removed,” Strauch said, “what I would expect is that companies would return in full force.”

Steve Torbit isn’t buying it. The regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation said he believes the sour economy ” not new regulations ” is the driver behind the slowdown.

And the proposed wildlife rules so vigorously opposed by companies were scaled back, Torbit said.

The number of areas considered sensitive wildlife habitat, requiring consultation with the state Division of Wildlife, was cut back. Restrictions that could have prohibited drilling in wildlife areas during birthing, mating or nesting seasons were dropped after the industry objected.

Limits on drilling operations near waterways were narrowed to just streams and rivers designated as premier fishing areas.

“We could have done a better job from a wildlife perspective,” said Torbit, a wildlife biologist who worked for state and federal agencies. “But it’s one of those situations where we have been working so long for this to break through that we’ve got to characterize it as a success.”

Walt Gasson, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, considers Colorado’s regulations “a great step in the right direction.” The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission on Friday will consider revising its recommendations for drilling in crucial wildlife habitat.

The proposed changes follow research funded in part by the industry that shows drops in mule deer numbers and effects on sage grouse in heavily developed areas.

But the recommendations are just that, Gasson said, they’re not guidelines.

Gasson said he views Colorado’s rules a move toward striking a balance between the need for energy and saving the wildlife, hunting and fishing, and special places that draw and keep people in the region.

“The true measure of this gas play will not be measured in the acres of sage brush or wildlife lost,” said Gasson, who was a biologist and administrator with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for 31 years. “It will be measured by the number of those special places that will be lost for all time. That will be the true cost.”


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