Gas drillers leery of redrawn maps for protection of wildlife

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on Tuesday approved updated maps defining areas where special regulations apply for protection of wildlife when drilling is proposed.

The action followed objections from two energy companies worried about how the changes might limit their operations in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin.

The changes reflect new information developed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife since the wildlife rules were adopted as part of sweeping rules revisions approved by the COGCC in 2008.

Statewide, they result in a 10 percent increase, to 24.5 million acres, in what’s defined as sensitive wildlife habitat under the rules, and a 2 percent increase, to 1.95 million acres, in land subject to stricter restricted surface occupancy rules.

However, the changes vary greatly from species to species, ranging from an 82 percent reduction in sensitive wildlife habitat for golden eagle nest sites to a 95 percent jump in bighorn sheep production areas subject to restricted surface occupancy rules.

Increased sheep protections particularly concern Encana USA as they pertain to the Battlement herd, which Parks and Wildlife is seeking to protect east of De Beque.

Jason Oates, who deals in regulatory matters for Encana, told the commission the map changes could cause “an obstacle to development” in those areas.

He said current federal restricted areas to protect sheep there are narrow enough Encana can access them by drilling from outside those areas, but the expanded state protections will make that much harder.

Sensitive wildlife habitat generally requires consultation with Parks and Wildlife to see what protective measures might be required during oil and gas development there. But except in certain circumstances, companies are required to avoid restricted surface occupancy areas to the maximum extent technologically and economically feasible.

Scott Hall, chief executive officer of Black Diamond Minerals, challenged another map change as it pertains to acreage his company has been drilling on in the Beaver Creek drainage south of Rifle. He said areas are labeled as restricted to protect cutthroat trout even though they have little or no water flow.

Parks and Wildlife official Chad Bishop said the reason is that sedimentation problems from drilling in those intermittent tributaries can harm trout downstream.


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As today’s Daily Sentinel editorial (“Methane scare evaporating”) suggests, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) may be “safer” – at least as to uncontrolled methane releases – than strident environmentalists have contended.  However, to dismiss the concerns of anti-fracking activists as a “canard” grossly overstates the conclusiveness of the cited study.  Nevertheless, it is indeed refreshing that the debate is finally being informed by available scientific evidence.

Meanwhile, Dennis Webb’s accompanying report (“Energy firm fined $50,000 for pit violations at fatality site”) clearly suggests that oil & gas operations aren’t nearly as “safe” as “some folks have led us to believe”, that the industry still cannot be trusted to voluntarily control the many “potential environmental hazards associated with drilling and fracking” and/or to comply with existing rules, and thus that rigorous enforcement of common-sense evidence-based regulations remains imperative.

As Dennis Webb likewise reported (“Gas drillers leery of redrawn maps for protection of wildlife”), the oil & gas industry continues to resist common-sense regulations based on scientific evidence pertinent to its legal responsibility to minimize impacts on wildlife.  Thus, it is premature to allow the “good news” about methane to induce complacency.

Moreover, the Daily Sentinel remains increasingly remiss in failing to call for repeal of the so-called “Halliburton Exception” to the Safe Drinking Water Act – which legally exempts “fracking” from the stricter regulatory scrutiny to which it would otherwise be legally subjected if properly regulated as “underground injection wells”.

Every time the industry touts its “safety” – and every time scientific evidence lends some credence to such assertions – the rationale for exempting “fracking” from long-standing and well-established environmental laws (including the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts) becomes less convincing.

And, as anecdotal evidence continues to accumulate that self-serving industry assertions merit less deference than claimed, the rationale for ending fracking’s dubiously unique exemptions becomes more compelling.

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