A 17-well Terra Energy Partners drilling project in Garfield County was part of a regulatory milestone last week as one of the first two oil and gas projects to be approved by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission under landmark new regulations.

The Terra project, in which the wells would be drilled directionally from one pad on federal land about five miles south of Rifle, was one of the first oil and gas development plans approved by the commission under sweeping new rules the agency adopted to implement the change in the agency’s mission spelled out under Senate Bill 181. That measure was passed in 2019 and also required other changes to oil and gas regulation by state agencies. Under the mission-change provision, the COGCC must prioritize protecting the public health, safety, welfare, wildlife and the environment in its regulation of oil and gas development.

The commission last week approved the Terra plan and a project consisting of a single well in Lincoln County, involving two jointly owned companies, Alpha Oil and Gas and Alpha Energy Development.

Following the approvals, Jeff Robbins, the commission chair and former director, said in a statement that he “can confirm that under the new regulations, these two permits establish that COGCC’s new process is robust and ensures full protections to public health, safety, welfare, wildlife and the environment and these two permits are examples that the Mission Change Rules got the new regulatory oversight and process right.”

Chelsie Miera, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said the approval of the Terra plan “serves as an important milestone for western Colorado and the state as a whole. The women and men in Colorado’s oil and natural gas industry have risen to the challenge to put their professional and technical expertise to work and have charted a path to safe and protective permits going forward.”

Terra plans to begin drilling under the project next May, according to a COGCC document. It has agreed after consultation with the Bureau of Land Management to limits on operations between Dec. 1 and April 15 each year. The pad is near priority winter range for elk.

While happy to see the timing limitation, Brad Klafehn, representing conservation and citizen groups, voiced concern in comments to the commission that the limit isn’t written into the COGCC location permit language, to ensure Terra is legally bound to it.

Among other concerns, he also worries that the project threatens the Harrington’s beardtongue, or Harrington’s penstemon, a flowering plant that he said globally exists only in six counties in Colorado.

According to the COGCC director’s recommendation of approval for the Terra project, the plant isn’t federally listed as threatened or endangered, and the BLM’s objective is to minimize the loss of plants within the plant’s core populations, which are outside the project area. While a July survey found a small number of plants within the project area, “Since the location of the project is outside the plant’s core population area, the loss of the plants will not adversely affect the sustainability of the overall ... population,” the staff memo says.

Michael Jewell, an attorney representing Terra, told the commission, “We trust the science, we trust those who are empowered with the science from the state and the (federal government) and we continue to work with them.”

He said the location permit includes recently added provisions to protect bears, raptors, mule deer, elk and cutthroat trout.

The well pad would be more than a mile from the nearest home.