Will Colorado oil and gas rules apply to federal lands?
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
DENVER ” Colorado officials revamping the state’s oil and gas rules are taking heat from an unexpected source: the federal government.
The Bureau of Land Management, overseeing an explosion of gas drilling on federal land in Colorado, is challenging the notion that new state regulations would extend to federal land without BLM’s agreement.
The BLM’s complaints follow vocal opposition from the industry to new rules being considered by regulators.
In a June 6 letter to the state, Colorado BLM director Sally Wisely said her agency believes “that certain draft rules would be pre-empted by federal law if applied to oil and gas operations on federal lands.” She cited court cases and the U.S. Constitution.
Wisely suggested in an earlier letter that the state and BLM should hash out their differences to avoid litigation.
She urged the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the main regulatory body, to consider updating a long-standing agreement between Colorado and the BLM on oil and gas development to resolve any conflicts.
“We have had a good relationship with the COGCC in terms of how we worked on these issues,” BLM spokesman Steven Hall said. “I think all of those concerns can be addressed through the (memorandum of understanding).”
Dave Neslin, acting director of the oil and gas commission, said he plans to meet with federal officials soon. He said there have been discussions and his staff recently modified the proposals in response to concerns about drilling on Indian lands.
“We believe the issues can be resolved in a manner that works for both sides,” Neslin said.
State officials, though, have insisted that the rules would apply to federal land because of the state’s jurisdiction over water and wildlife.
The oil and gas commission is expected to vote in August on rules implementing laws requiring that the environment, wildlife and public health and safety be given more consideration when approving development.
Colorado’s natural gas boom prompted the laws, approved last year. There were 35,440 active oil and gas wells statewide as of June 6.
The state’s record drilling rates the past few years have been driven largely by natural gas development, most of which is on state or private land.
Late last year, BLM director Wisely sent an editorial to Colorado papers saying her agency gets many complaints about energy development even though less than 15 percent of it occurs on federal lands.
Wisely said in a December interview with The Associated Press that the BLM is required to conduct rigorous environmental reviews and faces strict regulations, but the state doesn’t have a comparable process and it’s responsible for far more of the new wells. BLM spokesman Hall said although the state is considering comprehensive changes, many of the federal regulations will still be tougher. He said the agency doesn’t want to see existing protections on federal land watered down or state rules impede what the BLM’s been directed to do.
That includes fostering oil and gas development.
“The feds are trying to have it both ways. They’re speaking out of both sides of their mouth,” said Steve Torbit, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation in Boulder.
Torbit is a wildlife biologist who worked for the Wyoming and Colorado state wildlife agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said he worked on many federal environmental reviews and the BLM typically deferred to Colorado on the spacing of wells. Torbit contended that has allowed the BLM to get away without doing more rigorous environmental analyses. “They would say they couldn’t analyze effects on fish and wildlife because they didn’t know what the state was going to do,” he said.
Although some of the federal regulations are stronger on paper, Torbit said the BLM often waives requirements when companies ask. Some environmental groups and elected officials have made similar claims.
“The state rules will probably not be waived unless companies come in with a really creative wildlife conservation plan,” Torbit said.
If the BLM successfully challenges Colorado’s regulations, Torbit said federal officials should be prepared for more public scrutiny.
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