September 11, 2008

Meetings on Drilling Rules Bring Parties Closer Together

By Todd Hartman

The move by state regulators to reverse course on tough wildlife protections proposed for oil and gas operators grew out of a recent series of meetings between the parties convened by Gov. Bill Ritter's office.

Ritter's chief of staff, Jim Carpenter, conducted the meetings in late July and August to bring feuding parties closer together on proposed rules to protect wildlife from an energy boom spreading across areas of northwestern Colorado rich with deer and elk herds.

The gatherings included representatives of the Western Slope's biggest operators, Williams Cos. and EnCana, as well as staffers from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry.

Jep Seaman, of the Colorado Petroleum Association, called the meetings a "legitimate effort" on the part of the Ritter administration to "facilitate discussions on the difficult issues the commission is grappling with."

"It's something we appreciated," Seaman added.

The meetings mark a turn in a process rife with acrimony. The industry has complained since last fall that it didn't have enough input into the new rules, a charge the Ritter administration has long disputed.

Carpenter said the meetings were the result of the efforts of a "lot of people who've worked very hard over a period of months to turn down the heat" on attempts to balance the state's energy boom with protecting Colorado's natural splendor.

Among other things, the meetings resulted in a big victory for the industry: the recommendation to drop a provision that could have subjected companies to 90-day no-drilling periods to protect wildlife.

Instead, staffers will recommend that the nine-member oil and gas commission require that companies consult with the Colorado Division of Wildlife on how best to protect wildlife when fashioning drilling plans.

Commission director Dave Neslin said the move was not a retreat under pressure from industry, which complained the rules could cost them millions of dollars in lost drilling time.

"We believe it provides an appropriate protection for the state's wildlife resources," Neslin said. "This has been a process of give and take. It involves not just industry but wildlife groups and other interested parties."

But the possible loss of the restrictions left wildlife advocates "very disappointed," said Steve Torbit, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation. "We knew they were controversial, but believed they had a place in the overall package of wildlife considerations."

The commission will continue deliberating proposed rules today and possibly Thursday. Members voted Tuesday to delay discussion of rules protecting wildlife until Sept. 22 and 23.

Originally published by Todd Hartman, Rocky Mountain News and Gargi Chakrabarty, Rocky Mountain News.

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