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Crestone Peak Resources energy company drilling sites and equipment can be seen in multiple locations along South Hayesmount Road near Watkins, Colorado, in 2021. The company on Nov. 2, 2022, got approval for its Box Elder Comprehensive Drilling Plan that takes in 55 square miles of land in southern Adams County and northern Arapahoe County. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A sprawling plan to develop a total of 151 oil and gas wells on 20 sites in the still rural, but quickly developing northeastern edge of the City of Aurora was approved Wednesday by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Crestone Peak Resources’ Box Elder Comprehensive Area Plan encompasses 55 square miles that range from minority communities to the nests of bald eagles and burrowing owls.

On one edge is Aurora Highlands, which developers, in a commission filing, estimate will eventually hold 12,500 homes and 60,000 residents. The development is east of E-470, bounded on the north by East 48th Avenue and East 26th Avenue on the south.

Aurora Highlands had initially lodged a protest about the plan by Crestone, which is a subsidiary of Civitas Resources, but just before Wednesday’s hearing withdrew it, saying it had reached an agreement with the driller.

Two of the well sites Crestone proposed were on land owned or controlled by Aurora Highlands.

The comprehensive oil development plans, or CAPs, were added to the commission’s revised rules as a mechanism to better assess, coordinate and manage the cumulative impacts of drilling. 

They are part of the reorientation of the commission to focus on public health, welfare and safety and the environment.

“The approval of the CAP today shows that the mission-change rulemaking has created a workable, protective permitting process,” Jeff Robbins, the commission chairman, said in a written statement.

The Box Elder plan is part of ongoing oil and gas development in Aurora begun by ConocoPhillips. In 2020, Crestone bought ConocoPhillips’ Colorado assets for $400 million and it also assumed the operator’s agreement the Houston-based oil company had negotiated with Aurora the year before.

“The 151 wells are not new from our perspective, we’ve been working with Crestone on these for the last three years,” Jeffrey Moore, the city’s oil and gas manager, told the commission.

Crestone is already operating 130 oil and gas wells in the city, including 68 that would fall under the comprehensive plan raising its total to 219 wells. Half of the 20 drill sites have already been developed.

Moore said that the company has been operating in full compliance in the city and that the last 22 wells in Aurora were drilled using quieter and less polluting electric rigs, even though the operator agreement doesn’t require it.

Aurora supported the comprehensive area plan. Moore said, however, that the city did object to a recommendation from the commission staff that called for more consolidation of drill sites.

The city and the operator had agreed upon no more than eight wells to a site, seeing that as having less of an impact on the surrounding area.

“As a local jurisdiction with land use authority, the city must appropriately facilitate the development of multiple types of land use, including residential,” the city said in a filing.

“In negotiating the locations, and the number of wells at each location, the city was keenly focused on current and future land use development at and near the locations. Altering locations, and changing the number of wells on each location, is not consistent with the city’s expectations or future development plans,” the filing said.

Julie Murphy, the commission director, said that one of the goals of the new rules is to focus oil and gas activity to limit land use impacts, but conceded that at some point “consolidation can become concentration.”

The commissioners deferred to Aurora on the siting issue. “There was strong support for the City of Aurora,” Robbins said. “This is consistent with their master plan. The master plan is very important for local governments.”

Long rows of tubing that carry water to the Crestone Peak Resources energy company drilling sites line South Hayesmount Road near Watkins in 2021. The company on Wednesday, got approval for its Box Elder Comprehensive Drilling Plan that takes in 55 square miles of land in southern Adams County and northern Arapahoe County. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe