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FILE - Pumpjacks work in a field near Lovington, N.M., on April 24, 2015. The Biden administration said Friday, Oct. 29, 2021, petroleum industry regulators for the first time will analyze greenhouse gas emissions from federal oil and gas lease sales on a national scale. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

Colorado’s first comprehensive oil and gas development plan — a new mechanism aimed at better assessing and managing the cumulative impacts of drilling — was approved by state regulators Wednesday, paving the way for more than 200 new wells in Weld County.

Kerr-McGee, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum Corp., got a greenlight from Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for its Bronco Comprehensive Area Plan. The company will have six years under the plan to drill its wells.

The comprehensive area plans, or CAPs, were added to COGCC rules as part of the mandate under Senate Bill 181 for the commission to focus on protecting public health, safety, welfare and the environment and wildlife.

“The goal of the CAPS is to incentivize a holistic approach to development,” commission spokeswoman Megan Castle said.

“It is a good planning tool for the operators, for the state and localities,” said Lynn Granger, executive director of the industry trade group API-Colorado. “It provides some level of certainty for everyone involved.”

Environmental and community groups have pressed for a broader evaluation of impacts of oil and gas activities saying that the commission’s approvals of individual projects fail to capture the pile-on impacts of drilling in a local area or region.

The groups, however, contend that the comprehensive plans being filed provide only a limited view of impacts while potentially opening thousands of acres to oil and gas drilling.

“The data in the CAPs was supposed to inform new rules on cumulative impacts, but there are real questions about the data,” said Kate Merlin, an attorney with the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “If we can’t rely on the data, how can we rely on the rules to protect us?”

The plans also are ushering in more sources of pollution when the Front Range is already struggling with significant air pollution problems, said JoAnn Hackos, vice president of the Audubon Colorado Council. 

In addition to Kerr-McGee, Civitas Resources and PDC Energy have submitted comprehensive plans. The three plans total more than 820 wells across 94,000 acres.

Kerr-McGee’s Bronco CAP projects drilling 209 wells on a  24,333-acre area in Weld County centered around the Cervi Ranch. The drilling area is bounded on the north by U.S. 34, west of the town of Dearfield, and the on south by Interstate 76, near Roggen. 

The approval was delayed a week after it was criticized by oil and gas commissioners at an Aug. 3 hearing. Commissioner Karin McGowan scored what she called “squishy” language in the plan.

The initial plan, for example, said existing old wells would be “evaluated” for plugging and “to the greatest extent possible,” gathering lines would follow roads. 

Invoking Star Wars, McGowan said, “I joke about Yoda, but he did say it best, ‘Do or do not do, there is no try.’”

In the revised plan, Kerr-McGee committed to plugging wells, running gathering lines along roads, using pipelines to carry waste water away from drill sites and several other actions that had been tentative.

It also sharply cut its estimated air emissions by switching to natural gas-powered drill rigs, using less polluting diesel engines and cutting truck traffic.

CAP was supposed to help get a handle on emissions

In its April draft of the CAP, the company estimated in the first five years emissions of nitrogen oxides would total nearly 1,400 tons and methane emissions would be 240 tons. In the final plan that was down to 389 tons of NOx, which contributes to ozone pollution, and 143 tons of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Brett Ackerman, the commissioner with a wildlife and environment background, pressed for the CAP to note that the best management for wildlife during migratory or mating periods is shutting or limiting operations — so-called timing stipulations.

“Timing stipulations are the best management practice in the pronghorn area,” Akerman said. There are also two bald eagle winter nesting areas with a mile of the CAP.

Jamie Jost, Kerr-McGee’s attorney, however, pushed back on including the language in the plan saying that the company was in the process of developing a 30-page comprehensive wildlife management plan for the area with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The comprehensive plan was expected to identify the specific drilling areas within the plan area and that the whole region and each of the sites would be evaluated together. That would clear the way for an operator to seek drilling permits.

Kerr-McGee’s plan, however, calls for identifying 11 drill sites later and the company will then seek commission approval for oil and gas development plans for each site. “I don’t think that was the intent of the rules,” Commissioner John Messner said.

The next CAP up for review will be Civitas Resources’ Box Elder CAP, followed by PDC Energy’s Guanella CAP, with a projected 466 wells at 25 locations on 32,640 acres southwest of Greeley. The comment period on Guanella is open until Oct. 1.

The Box Elder CAP is already drawing criticism from environmental groups. The plan calls for 151 wells on 20 drill sites across 37,520 acres in Adams and Arapahoe counties and Aurora.

While compared to the more limited cumulative impacts data in the Bronco CAP, the data in the Civitas plan is “elegantly packaged, and extraordinarily long,” according to Merlin, from WildEarth Guardians. The emissions and impacts report runs 483 pages.

Still, in comments filed with the COGCC, Merlin said that inconsistencies in the data raise questions about the confidence of the analysis. 

For example, a Civitas consultant monitored releases off existing company sites and found next to no emissions, but ambient air monitors operated by Front Range communities detect both background levels and spikes of chemicals linked to oil and gas operations.

“How can their monitors not even pick-up the background levels?” Merlin asked.

The Civitas air quality study in Broomfield focused on taking measures as the wind blew across the company’s location toward monitors, said Brian Cain, the company’s chief sustainability officer.

“The goal of this study was not simply to detect methane or other air constituents in the community, but to detect and understand any emissions that could be coming specifically from our locations,” Cain said.

Civitas has already installed more than 100 air monitors in the Box Elder CAP reporting to the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division, Cain said. The monitors will provide an air quality baseline for the area.

As a result of the sprawl of the plan, the Box Elder CAP will have impacts on burrowing owls and other wildlife as well as people living in low-income and minority communities, said Hackos, from Audubon.

“The plan certainly gives us plenty of things to evaluate but what we are concerned about is that they will just pass everything and we’ll have hundreds more wells,” Hacko said.

Mark Jaffe

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe