Wildlife rules do not mean end of gas drilling

One surprising piece of news released last week was the fact that 20 major gas production companies are beginning to work with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources regarding gas drilling and new wildlife regulations.

Yes those wildlife regulations. The ones that have been a source of immense industry aggravation for over a year now. The same ones that were under attack in the state Legislature last week.

Mike King, deputy director of the Department of Natural Resources, who reported the news about the 20 companies to us, stressed that a willingness to work with the DNR on the wildlife mitigation doesn’t mean the companies endorse the wildlife rules. And industry representatives say they still have concerns about the way the wildlife rules are worded and how much authority over drilling the Colorado Division of Wildlife will have.

That’s reason enough for the Legislature to take a close look at those rules and perhaps clarify some of the language.

What lawmakers must not do, however, is approve House Bill 1255 as it was originally introduced. The bill, by Yuma Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, would eliminate the requirement that an oil-and-gas operator consult with the Division of Wildlife about potential wildlife
mitigation measures.

That consultation requirement was mandated in a bill that received support in the Legislature just two years ago. The wildlife rules were painstakingly crafted and modified by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission as it held public hearings across the state and accepted public comment over the past year.

To gut the wildlife-consultation requirement would be a violation of the public trust — a slap at all those people who worked hard to craft a compromise. It might also result in a citizens’ initiative to impose these wildlife rules — or perhaps much stricter wildlife restrictions — through the ballot box.

However, it is clear from testimony in the House last week and comments from industry officials, that confusion remains about how much authority the Wildlife Division will have over drilling under the new regulations — whether it will essentially be able to veto any drilling permit that wildlife authorities view as too threatening to wildlife.

Absolutely not, says Harris Sherman, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources.

“Some people give the impression that wildlife trumps all other uses,” Sherman told us last week. “That’s absolutely not the case.” The Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has the final say and it must balance wildlife protection with other uses.

Not everyone agrees with Sherman, however. Some lawmakers and industry representatives believe the wording of the rules leaves them open to interpretation and the possibility of much broader Division of Wildlife power over drilling permit.

If that is the case, it seems like an easy fix. The Legislature should add language to make it clear the wildlife rules do exactly what Harris Sherman says they do, and no more.

The same is true with the Wildlife Division’s perceived authority to dictate how drill rigs are placed on private land and what a landowner must do to accommodate wildlife.

In that case, Sherman also believes the perception is wrong. “The landowner can veto the wildlife recommendations in most instances,” he said. The exception is if there is endangered-species habitat on the land, in which case a negotiated settlement can be reached. But, drill permits involving endangered species on private land amounted to a tiny fraction of the 7,000 permits processed last year, Sherman said.

Again, the Legislature may want to clarify the language to assure private landowners they have adequate protection.

But it would be a serious mistake for lawmakers to essentially eviscerate the wildlife rules.


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