Senate Bill SB19-181 requires the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to protect wildlife and biological resources when permitting oil and gas operations. The COGCC recently proposed draft rules to address this requirement. 

While we appreciate the effort that has gone into generating these rules, we feel that they need to be strengthened to adequately protect Colorado’s wildlife and biological resources. 

The current rules do not cover all biological resources, address only a subset of vulnerable species and their habitats, compromise on the standards for even the species that are listed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) as vulnerable to extinction, and have a variety of exceptions that could potentially lead to adverse impacts on vulnerable species and their habitats.

Ramesh Bhatt and Delia Malone

Although “biological resources” are explicitly required to be safeguarded in SB 181, they are neither defined nor sufficiently protected in the proposed rules. Consequently, critical aspects of Colorado’s biological diversity — including globally rare, endangered plant species and pollinators — are left vulnerable. This is a serious omission that must be remedied in the final rules.

Also, while the original rules required all new and existing pits to be covered and fenced to keep out wildlife, the latest version exempts existing pits. This change was made despite CPW’s suggestion that all pits be protected. 

An estimated 500,000 to 1 million birds are killed annually in oil pits and evaporation ponds. One study found that 51% of all birds found at oil and gas facilities were in heater-treaters, 30% in various pits, 4% in wastewater ponds, 4% tanks and trays, and 1% spills. The rule change means there will be thousands of pits across Colorado that are hazardous to birds and other wildlife. COGCC should correct this, and require all pits, old and new, to be fenced and netted.

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Moreover, instead of protecting all designated priority habitats, the rules only consider protection for habitats of 20 of 55 animal species identified by CPW in 2019 as High Priority Species. Additionally, Colorado’s State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) identifies 117 critically imperiled plant species of Greatest Conservation Need, but no plant species protections are considered in the rulemaking. 

Similarly, reptiles and amphibians are also left out of the staff draft. Moreover, when it comes to migration and wildlife corridors, protection is offered to only 10 species.

Even when protection is provided, it is not sufficiently strong. The case of the Greater sage-grouse is illustrative. The primary causes of sage-grouse habitat loss are anthropogenic disturbances. COGCC is proposing to permit single operations within sage-grouse habitats and unlimited operations just one mile from leks.

This approach disregards the best science, which shows that the minimum distance required to protect sage-grouse leks (breeding grounds) is to keep energy development at least 2-3 miles away, and as much as 5 miles away.

Also, unfortunately there are many exceptions built into the rules. For example, Section 1202 a8 states: “Operators will conduct all vegetation removal necessary for Oil and Gas Operations outside of the nesting season for migratory birds (April 1 to August 31).”

However, the very next sentence immediately contradicts this rule and says that operators can actually clear vegetation during this sensitive period if this action “must be scheduled” at that time. Under those circumstances, operators are then allowed to haze birds and take other exclusion actions.

Operators can also buy out of habitat protection: They would have to pay only $13,750 for up to 11 acres of disturbance. We are concerned that these exceptions and buy-outs will not be protective of our wildlife and natural ecosystems.

Further, while the rules call for various plans (protection plans, mitigation plans, etc.) to be submitted by the operator, it is not clear on how these plans will be evaluated. Clear and objective criteria for when oil and gas operations will be allowed and when they will be denied would be helpful. 

Just like the White River National Forest plan for oil and gas, protective plans need to steer new drilling and habitat fragmentation from roads away from priority habitats like migration bottlenecks, winter range for elk, and mule deer fawning areas. Avoidance protects habitat, while ostensibly “low density” development sacrifices wildlife to more drilling on our most sensitive lands.

SB 181 has provided a historic opportunity to protect wildlife and biological resources from oil and gas operations. This law changed the mandate of the COGCC from fostering oil and gas operations to protecting people, wildlife, and the environment.

We urge the COGCC to follow this mandate and craft strong and effective rules to comprehensively protect Colorado’s wildlife and biological resources. These vital aspects of our environment should be safeguarded to the same extent as human health and welfare. Indeed, these natural resources are the foundation of human health.

Delia Malone of Redstone is ecologist and wildlife chair of the Sierra Club Colorado Chapter. Ramesh Bhatt of Boulder is chair of the Conservation Committee, Sierra Club Colorado Chapter.

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