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Wells sit on the D90’s oil and gas fields along Colorado Highway 14 outside Walden during July’s monsoon season. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado oil and gas regulators voted Friday to create a working group — likely to include representatives from industry, environmental and communities groups and state agencies — as a prelude to new rules to manage the cumulative impacts of oil and gas drilling.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission took the step after six environmental and community groups petitioned for a cumulative impact rulemaking, proposing rules industry representatives said might make it impossible to drill in the state.

Kate Merlin, an attorney for WildEarth Guardians, one of the petitioners, told the commission in a hearing on Zoom, that since 2019, when the agency’s mission was changed to protecting public health, safety and welfare, more than 5,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled in Colorado.

In 2022, the commission approved plans for an additional 1,500 new wells.

“The idea that we need more data just isn’t going to fly anymore,” Merlin said in urging the commission to take action. Some of the groups voiced a concern that the commission was reluctant to deal with the issue.

In their petition the environmental groups outlined the potential impacts of growing oil and gas operations on the severe ozone pollution problem in the Front Range and on the state efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“If we commit to doing this and this is not a delay tactic,” Jeff Robbins, the commission chairman, told Merlin, “we should take your effort and have the commission establish that working group.”

“Let’s take your efforts and use that as the incentive to dig into this,” Robbins said.

Robbins said he thought the working group could complete its task during the first quarter of 2023.

The development plans of oil and gas operators are required to include an assessment of their cumulative impacts, including how much pollution they will emit, and steps to mitigate those impacts.

Merlin said that a review of those plans found widely different estimates for the same activities — such as fracking a well — among different operators.

Commissioner John Messner said he was uncomfortable starting a rulemaking based on the draft submitted by the environmental groups.

Among the proposed rules was not issuing any permits for drilling if the state isn’t on track to meet its greenhouse emission reduction goals or revoking a permit if its cumulative impacts exceed initial projections.

Another proposal would have banned drilling in the 24 counties that have already warmed at least 1.5 degrees Celsius. The list included Weld and Garfield counties — the two largest oil and gas producers in the state.

Merlin said that to petition for a rulemaking a proposed rule had to be included. 

“That is one vision, one approach and we have a lot of interest in getting this right,” Robbins said.

Colorado’s two largest oil and gas producers — Chevron Inc. and Noble Energy — opposed the rulemaking petition in a filing, but supported setting up a working group of stakeholders to explore whether additional rules are needed.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, one of the state’s major industry trade groups, also supported the commission’s decision.

“While we were opposed to WildEarth Guardians’ petition, we welcome a thoughtful and comprehensive stakeholder process on cumulative impacts,” Dan Haley, the association’s president, said in a statement.

Commissioner Karin McGowan said that some of the air and climate change issues raised by the environmentalists fall into the regulatory bailiwick of other agencies, such as the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which regulates air emissions.

“Maybe others have to have a voice or a seat at the table,” McGowan, a former CDPHE deputy executive director, said. “The question is how do we put all these pieces together.”

The working group will be overseen by Commissioner Brett Ackerman, the former Colorado Parks and Wildlife executive, who serves as the body’s expert on wildlife and environment.

“We did always intend to come back to cumulative impacts with a second round of rulemaking,”  Robbins said. “Now is a good time to do that.”

Mark Jaffe

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe