DENVER — Gov. Bill Ritter and energy companies announced agreements Tuesday that are intended to minimize the impacts of oil and gas drilling on 355,000 acres of key wildlife habitat in western Colorado.
The deals between the state and nine companies, including ExxonMobil and EnCana Oil & Gas (USA), will cover part of the Piceance Basin, among Colorado's most active natural gas fields and home to some of the country's largest deer and elk herds.
New oil and gas rules that took effect last year encouraged development of plans to protect wildlife in exchange for more streamlined reviews of drilling plans. State officials said the agreements were negotiated over the past 18 months and are aimed at protecting big game, raptors, sage grouse and cutthroat trout.
"This balanced approach will drive our economy forward, allow us to maximize our vast energy resources and ensure sustainable communities for years to come," Ritter said.
The oil and gas rules have been denounced by some industry representatives as burdensome and a reason for the downturn in Colorado's once-booming energy development. If elected, Republican gubernatorial candidates Scott McInnis and Dan Maes pledged to scrutinize and perhaps overhaul them.
The rules' supporters, including hunters and landowners, say they are an attempt at balance. The rules implemented 2007 laws requiring more consideration of environmental and health issues when approving energy development and set standards for such areas as protection of waterways, reclamation of developed land and noise and odors.
The genesis of the wildlife rules was a set of recommendations drafted about five years ago by Bob Elderkin of the Colorado Mule Deer Association and Dennis Buechler of the Colorado Wildlife Federation.
"These regulations were absolutely necessary if we're going to sustain the overall health of our big game herds in western Colorado and the habitat that they need to survive," said Todd Malmsbury of the Colorado Wildlife Federation.
"This effort also shows that it is possible for the industry to develop natural gas in a way that does not threaten the very existence of Colorado's world-class wildlife resource."
EnCana spokesman Doug Hock said the company's agreement with the state covers 45,000 acres on its land near Parachute.
"This is something that naturally flows from work we already were doing with the (Colorado) Division of Wildlife," Hock said. "This just formalizes a lot of what we were doing."
With information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com