Colorado’s first comprehensive oil and gas development plan — a new mechanism to better assess and manage the cumulative impacts of drilling — was approved by state regulators on Wednesday, clearing the way for more than 200 new wells in the Weld County.
Kerr-McGee, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum Corp., got the green light from the 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.
Comprehensive Area Plans, or CAPs, were added to COGCC rules as part of the mandate of Senate Bill 181 for the commission to focus on protecting public health, safety, welfare , environment and wildlife.
“The goal of CAPS is to encourage a holistic approach to development,” said commission spokeswoman Megan Castle.
“It’s a good planning tool for carriers, for the state and for localities,” said Lynn Granger, executive director of the API-Colorado Business Group. “It provides a certain level of certainty for everyone involved.”
Environmental and community groups have pushed for a broader assessment of the impacts of oil and gas activities, saying the commission’s approvals of individual projects fail to capture the cumulative impacts of drilling in a local area or region.
The groups, however, argue that the comprehensive plans filed only provide a limited view of the impacts while potentially opening up 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, a lawyer with environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “If we can’t trust the data, how can we trust the rules to protect us? »
The plans also usher in more sources of pollution as the Front Range already grapples with significant air pollution issues, 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 over 820 wells on 94,000 acres.
Kerr-McGee’s Bronco CAP Projects is drilling 209 wells on a 24,333-acre area in Weld County centered around the Cervi Ranch. The drill area is bounded to the north by US 34, west of the town of Dearfield, and to the south by Interstate 76, near Roggen.
Approval was delayed for a week after it was criticized by oil and gas commissioners at a hearing on August 3. Commissioner Karin McGowan marked what she called “spongy” language in the plan.
The original plan, for example, called for existing old wells to be “assessed” for clogging and “where possible” collection lines would follow the roads.
Invoking Star Wars, McGowan said: “I joke about Yoda, but he said it best, ‘Do or don’t, there’s no trying.'”
In the revised plan, Kerr-McGee pledged to plug wells, run collection lines along roads, use pipelines to evacuate sewage from drilling sites and several other actions that had been provisional.
It has also drastically reduced its estimated air emissions by switching to natural gas drills, using cleaner diesel engines and reducing truck traffic.
The CAP was supposed to help control emissions
In its April draft of the CAP, the company estimated over the first five years that nitrogen oxide emissions would total nearly 1,400 tonnes and methane emissions would be 240 tonnes. In the final plan, there were only 389 tons of NOx, which contributes to ozone pollution, and 143 tons of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
Brett Ackerman, the wildlife and environmental commissioner, lobbied for the CAP to note that the best management of wildlife during migration or mating times is to close or limit operations – which the are called temporal stipulations.
“Time stipulations are best management practice in the pronghorn region,” Akerman said. There are also two bald eagle winter nesting areas within a mile of the CAP.
Jamie Jost, Kerr-McGee’s attorney, however, pushed back against including the wording in the plan saying the company was in the process of developing a comprehensive 30-page wildlife management plan for the area with Colorado Parks. and Wildlife.
The detailed plan was to identify specific drilling areas within the plan area and that the entire region and each of the sites would be evaluated together. This would pave the way for an operator to apply for drilling permits.
Kerr-McGee’s plan, however, calls for the subsequent identification of 11 drill sites 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 to review will be PDC Energy’s Guanella CAP, also in Weld County, with a forecast of 466 wells at 25 locations on 32,640 acres southwest of Greeley. It is open for public comment until October 1.
The third plan – Civitas Resources’ Box Elder CAP – is already drawing criticism from environmental groups. The plan calls for 151 wells at 20 well pads on 37,520 acres in Adams and Arapahoe and Aurora counties.
Although compared to the more limited data on cumulative impacts from the Bronco CAP, the data from the Civitas plan is “elegantly presented and extraordinarily long,” according to Merlin of WildEarth Guardians. The Emissions and Impacts report is 483 pages.
Still, in comments filed with the COGCC, Merlin said the inconsistencies in the data raise questions about the confidence of the analysis.
For example, a Civitas consultant monitored releases from existing company sites and found virtually no emissions, but ambient air monitors operated by Front Range communities detect both background and chemical spikes related to oil and gas operations.
“How can their monitors not even pick up background levels?” Merlin asked.
The Civitas Broomfield air quality study focused on taking measurements as the wind blew across the company’s location towards the monitors, said Brian Cain, director of sustainability for the company.
“The purpose of this study was not simply to detect methane or other air constituents in the community, but to detect and understand any emissions that might be coming specifically from our locations,” Cain said.
Civitas has already installed more than 100 air monitors in Box Elder CAP under the Colorado Division of Air Pollution Control, Cain said. The monitors will provide an air quality baseline for the region.
Because of the plan’s sprawl, 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, of Audubon.
“The plan certainly gives us a lot to assess, but what worries us is that they’ll pass everything and we’ll have hundreds more wells,” Hacko said.