More than a quarter of Garfield County’s private land in energy firms’ hands

A working drill rig and a long line of drilling trucks near a house along the Rife-Rulison Road in Garfield County. Green groups say energy companies own more than a quarter of all private land in Garfield County.

A conservation group says sizable land ownership by energy companies in Garfield County serves as reason to rebuff efforts to give property owners veto powers over new oil and gas restrictions for critical wildlife areas.

The Colorado Wildlife Federation says its research shows that energy companies own 28 percent of the 758,947 private acres in the county. The industry’s ownership is located in western Garfield County, which is part of the natural-gas-rich Piceance Basin.

In addition, the group found that energy company acreage is home to 28 percent of what are considered restricted surface occupancy areas in the county under new Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission rules.

The rules largely prohibit oil and gas operations in such areas, in order to protect habitat such as eagle nest sites, cutthroat trout streams and sage grouse mating grounds.

Earlier this year some lawmakers unsuccessfully sought passage of a bill that would have prohibited implementing the restricted occupancy restrictions on private lands without the landowner’s consent.

Suzanne O’Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, said providing such veto power would put energy companies in a position to disregard protections for wildlife on the very land they are drilling.

O’Neill fears the landowner consent issue isn’t dead yet. The state House of Representatives is scheduled to debate the state’s new oil and gas rules Thursday.

The rules are intended to better protect wildlife, the environment and the public, but critics say they are costly and burdensome, particularly in the area of wildlife protection.

Michael Saul, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation, said there has been a lot of concern about what wildlife provisions in the rules mean for landowner rights, but mostly on the state’s eastern plains. Yet some of the state’s biggest conflicts between oil and gas development and wildlife protection are occurring in Garfield County, Saul said. The county leads the state in drilling activity.

In accordance with existing law, Saul said, the new rules already require landowner consent for permit-specific wildlife protections. Where landowners don’t consent, alternative conditions acceptable to them must be sought.

One major property owner in Garfield County is EnCana Oil & Gas (USA), whose holdings include the 45,000-acre North Parachute Ranch, where it owns the mineral rights and a significant amount of the land. Spokesman Doug Hock said EnCana has shown it is willing to work closely with the state Division of Wildlife to implement habitat protections there, including for sage grouse.

O’Neill said some companies might agree to wildlife protections even where not required of them.

“But there are other companies who would probably disregard wildlife protections and accommodations,” she said.

Hock said those companies should be dealt with “in a way that doesn’t inflict on the whole industry.”

Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, had introduced and later withdrew a bill that would have required landowner consent for any state wildlife protection conditions related to oil and gas development, and required off-site mitigations where consent isn’t provided. He said he doesn’t think it makes a difference whether energy companies or others own the land in question.

“If you write rules that recognize property rights, it ought to apply to whoever the owner is. I don’t think we want to start differentiating,” he said.

He thinks big energy companies will negotiate comprehensive development plans under the new rules, addressing wildlife in those voluntary plans. But O’Neill said if they have veto power as landowners, they’ll have less incentive to participate in such plans.

Hock worries that state-imposed wildlife restrictions could override agreements between landowners and energy companies about where and how drilling can occur, infringing on the rights of landowners.

He said issues are easier to work through when a single entity owns a large piece of land and underlying minerals, and there’s no need to deal with a patchwork of ownership.

“When you’ve got multiple surface owners, that’s where it becomes much more difficult in carrying through on the rules,” he said.


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