Ex-wildlife managers urge approval of new Colorado oil, gas rules | AspenTimes.com

Ex-wildlife managers urge approval of new Colorado oil, gas rules

Judith Kohler
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
In this photo released by the Colorado Division of Wildlife a radio-collared fawn, right, crosses a hillside in the Piceance Basin near Parchutte, Colo., on Jan. 22, 2008. With funding from sportsmen, the energy industry and wildlife conservation groups, the Division of Wildlife has collared hundreds of deer in the rapidly developing gas basin in an effort to track wildlife impacts from energy development. About 60 former state and federal wildlife managers are urging legislators on Monday, Feb. 2, 2009, to approve new oil and gas regulations in the face of industry claims that the rules will cost the state jobs and tax revenue.(AP Photo/Colorado Division of Wildlife, Randy Hampton)
AP | Colorado Division of Wildlife

DENVER ” About 60 former state and federal wildlife managers are urging legislators to approve new oil and gas regulations in the face of industry warnings that the rules will cost the state jobs and tax revenue.

The letter sent Monday to legislators says the regulations developed over 18 months are weaker than what they believe are necessary to protect Colorado’s big-game herds, native trout and other wildlife in the aftermath of record natural gas development.

Despite the concern, the 61 wildlife experts, including two former Colorado Division of Wildlife directors, said they support the rules passed in December by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. They wrote: “In the end, all of us who love this state want to ensure that our world-class natural resources are left in as good or better shape than when we inherited them.”

If the Legislature approves the rules, they will take effect April 1.

The rules would implement two laws requiring more weight be given to the environment, public health and safety and wildlife when approving oil and gas development. The Legislature overwhelmingly passed the measures in 2007.

Now, however, industry officials and some legislators argue that a recession is no time to clamp down on businesses that have generated thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue for the state. Uncertainty about the regulations’ effects is causing companies to leave Colorado or scale back operations, they argue.

Critics also contend that the rules go beyond what the Legislature intended.

“I am very disappointed with how far they have taken these regulations,” said Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, who voted for the laws two years ago.

A bill by Gardner would reduce the Division of Wildlife’s role in scrutinizing energy development’s impacts. It would prohibit wildlife protections without the landowner’s consent and would mandate a cost-benefit analysis of restrictions in some cases.

“I think it’s important to know what we’re doing to private industry,” Gardner said.

The rules’ defenders counter that the industry’s slowdown is due to plummeting oil and gas prices, tight credit and lack of pipeline capacity to get the gas to bigger markets ” not the regulations. They say fishing, hunting, recreation and other industries dependent on natural resources are important to Colorado’s economy and help sustain communities when energy booms go bust.

“I think the legislators who have close associations with the oil and gas industry are going to keep putting bills forward to try to weaken or dismantle the rules,” said John Ellenberger of Grand Junction, the state’s former big-game manager.

Last week, a legislative committee killed a bill that would have delayed the regulations for a year. Another measure yet to be voted on would bar wildlife protections harmful to existing oil and gas development.

“We knew that this was coming,” Ellenberger said. “Our letter was to try to balance things a little because we weren’t hearing much from anybody else.”

The 2007 law that mandated balancing oil and gas development with wildlife conservation had its genesis in guidelines drafted two years earlier by members of the Colorado Mule Deer Association and the Colorado Wildlife Federation. Dozens of hunting, angling and environmental groups endorsed them in hopes of minimizing the effects of the state’s energy boom.

Of special concern is western Colorado’s Piceance Basin, dubbed Colorado’s “mule-deer factory” by wildlife managers. Western Colorado is home to some of the country’s largest deer and elk herds and native fish.

Last year, the state issued a record 8,027 drilling permits, nearly double the 4,323 approved in 2005. Most of the permits were for natural gas.

As the recession has deepened, though, companies say they are cutting back drilling in western Colorado. Several have announced plans to reduce spending or shift their focus elsewhere, including large gas shale deposits in Texas and in the East.

John Swartout of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, said the industry fears the new rules would aggravate problems by giving the Division of Wildlife veto power over development. He said the agency’s ability to appeal a decision by the oil and gas commission could be a backdoor way to impose seasonal drilling restrictions.

Restrictions that could have prohibited drilling in wildlife areas during birthing, mating or nesting seasons were dropped after the industry objected.

State officials have said the wildlife and state health departments would have input into some issues, but the oil and gas commission would make the final decisions.

“The people who signed the letter (to legislators) are not preservationists,” Ellenberger said. “All we’re asking for is reasonable planning to protect a very important resource for the people of the state.”

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