Many outsiders picture Colorado as a state of wide-open spaces, ample outdoor recreation, and few of the troubles that afflict more densely populated areas. But the Centennial State has its challenges, and one that has come to the fore in recent years—in community conversation, town-hall meetings, and ballot initiatives—is how best to address the human health and wildlife conservation concerns that have accompanied a rapid rise in oil and gas development.
The initial answer to that challenge came in April 2019 when Governor Jared Polis signed the Protect Public Welfare Oil and Gas Operations bill (S.B. 19-181), which changed how the state permits oil and gas operations, specifically by giving substantive considerations to conservation when issuing those leases. Among other key reforms, the law overhauled the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC)—which approves drilling permits and regulates the oil and gas industry—by directing it to safeguard wildlife and its habitat against the potential negative impacts of development. The law also led to the COGCC undertaking an extensive public process, referred to as the Mission Change Rulemaking, that started early this year and is now concluding.
The proposed rules, issued in June, would change how the COGCC balances development and conservation. Although the draft rules are encouraging—for example, they call for safeguarding some priority wildlife habitat and for COGCC to consult with the state’s wildlife agency in energy development decisions—they’re missing several important components. The Pew Charitable Trusts, along with many state, local, and national organizations, is calling on the COGCC to make these changes in its final rule:
- Add important wildlife habitat, migration corridors, areas where pregnant or calving game congregate (called production areas), and critical winter range to the list of High Priority Habitats for elk, mule deer, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep. High Priority Habitats are those where Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) seeks to avoid and minimize the impacts of development on sensitive or at-risk wildlife. This change would contribute to healthier, more resilient herds of big game.
- Prohibit oil and gas development within high-use migration corridors while not allowing energy development on more than 3% of medium- and low-use migratory habitat. Recent peer-reviewed research conducted in western Wyoming on mule deer found that no development is better than some development in crucial habitat areas and that steep population declines are observed where development exceeds 3% in migratory habitat.
- Address potential discrepancies between CPW and COGCC oversight. For example, if COGCC fails to include CPW-recommended conditions of approval on a proposed development plan, the COGCC director should be required to explain how the commission will address probable impacts to wildlife or ecosystems identified by wildlife experts.
The new rules that will govern Colorado’s oil and gas industry are poised to be the most advanced of any Western state, blending energy extraction priorities with environmental health and human well-being. With the above-proposed changes, the Mission Change rules will ensure this balanced approach.
Matt Skroch is a project director and David Ellenberger is a senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation team.