A not-so-grand experiment

The state’s contrived explanation for allowing drilling near eagle roost

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A male bald Eagle flies back to its nest with a Crestone well pad in the background in Weld County.
Dana Bove

With the passage of Senate Bill 19-181 at the Colorado State House this spring, Dana Bove from Front Range Nesting Bald Eagles (FRNBES) was hopeful that the leadership at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) would finally reconsider its approval of Crestone’s 22-well pad known as the Dream Weaver site in western Weld County near the Boulder County line. As previously reported in BW (See “Rules without teeth,” News, April 11, 2019), the COGCC approved Crestone’s application for the site in September 2018 based on faulty maps that didn’t accurately portray the location of the middle Boulder Creek communal bald eagle roost. The roost is within a half-mile of the drill site, close enough to warrant restrictions on disturbance during winter roosting months, according to 2008 Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) recommendations designed to protect bald eagles. 

The new law, signed by Gov. Jared Polis on April 16, prioritizes the protection of public health, safety and the environment as the COGCC regulates the oil and gas industry. It also requires a wildlife expert and environmental expert to sit on the commission. As Bove puts it: “SB 181 is supposed to elevate standing for experts that advocate for the environment and wildlife, and no longer only cater to the industry.” 

But, Bove says, after several meetings with state officials, including COGCC Director Jeff Robbins, regarding the Dream Weaver site, this isn’t happening. “Robbins’ hand on this matter indicates that this is a long way in coming,” he says. 

What started out as an encouraging conversation, Bove says, soon turned out to be more or less business as usual. At the last meeting on May 6, which included representatives from Crestone, the COGCC, CPW and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which oversees both agencies, Bove and the FRNBES’ lawyers say they were told by state officials that the Dream Weaver approval would not be reconsidered. 

Instead, according to Bove and two other attorneys who attended the meeting, it was suggested the site could serve as a way of observing what kind of impact development has on bald eagles, this despite the 2008 recommendations that already states buffer zones and seasonal closures around nests and wintering bald eagles are necessary in order to protect the bird. 

“If they want to set up a test, this is not the way to do it. That’s called a peer-reviewed project designed with a specific purpose, has monitoring protocols and all that sort of a thing,” says FRNBES attorney Mike Chiropolos, who was at the meeting. “You don’t make up wildlife protections on the fly. If you want to do a controlled experiment, this would not be the context.”

At the meeting, Crestone, which maintains it has approved applications from the COGCC and can start drilling, did agree to build a sound barrier around the site in an effort to mitigate impacts, but that’s not enough, Bove says. And in the end, while state officials, specifically Robbins at the COGCC, could have taken a stand for the eagles, requiring the company to cease operations during the winter roosting months, they didn’t, according to FRNBES and its attorneys.

“We were surprised because rather than trying to take a more protective approach they’re essentially saying let’s go ahead and let this thing cause harm and let’s figure out what that harm looks like and how extensive it is,” says attorney Bill Eubanks, who attended the May 6 meeting by phone.

Despite multiple requests for comment, DNR and Crestone did not respond to BW’s questions regarding the meeting as of press time. 

Bove says he’s not sure what else FRNBES can do in the case of Dream Weaver in light of what he says is inaction on the part of Robbins and the COGCC. But the group, along with its lawyers, is hoping to introduce legislation next session that would make CPW’s 2008 recommendations legally binding.  

“We’re coming in with science-based recommendations that a state agency created and all we’re asking to do is to enshrine those into state law,” Eubanks says.  

Unfortunately, according to Eubanks, the Dream Weaver site isn’t the only example in Colorado where CPW’s 2008 recommendations to protect eagles aren’t being followed. 

“The problem is CPW always says, ‘we have these recommendations, but they’re just recommendations,’” Eubanks says. “On our side, we say, ‘what’s the point of them if you’re not going to enforce them, if you’re not going to actually hold anyone accountable, why have them at all?’ And they’ve never really been able to give us an answer.” 

It’s still early in the legislative process, Eubanks admits — too early to say exactly what the bill will shape up to be. But no matter what happens between now and the next legislative session, Eubanks says it will remain focused around protecting eagles and the habitats they depend on for survival from encroaching development.