Rules without teeth

Crestone’s drilling plans near bald eagle roost moving ahead despite CPW recommendations

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Bald eagles at the middle Boulder Creek communal roost on March 31, 2019.
Dana Bove

As previously reported by Boulder Weekly (See: “Ruling the roost,” News, Feb. 21, 2019), in September 2018, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) approved a drilling permit for Crestone’s 22-well pad known as the Dream Weaver site in western Weld County near the Boulder County line, despite the fact that the site is located closer to the middle Boulder Creek communal bald eagle roost than Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) advises in its 2008 recommendations. 

Officials with CPW have admitted the wildlife maps used at the time of permitting did not accurately portray the location of the bald eagle roost, and that the wellsite is within the half-mile sensitive wildlife habitat buffer recommended by the agency. If the information had been accurate at the time of permitting, it would have triggered a formal wildlife consultation with CPW, which likely would have included alternative site reviews. 

When alerted to the mistake, the COGCC worked with Crestone, CPW and the Town of Frederick on voluntary mitigation efforts in order to push back drilling operations to a date that did not interfere with the 2018-19 winter roosting season that ran from November to March. In short, “this situation was amicably resolved by the operator being open to altering construction during the CPW bald eagle nesting window,” according to COGCC spokesperson Chris Arend.

But now the question is, did this mitigation efforts fix the problem or simply postpone the negative impacts on roosting eagles?  

Although Crestone did minimize disturbance at the eagle roost this past winter after consulting with state regulators, the upcoming construction schedule will now push activity at the Dream Weaver site into next winter’s roosting season, threatening migratory bald eagles, which are federally protected.

To date, construction of Dream Weaver has yet to begin, but Crestone spokesperson Bridget Ford says the company plans to start construction in late June, begin drilling in the fall, start completions by May 2020, with production beginning by July 2020, although this schedule is subject to change.  

In an email response to questions, COGCC spokesperson Arend writes that if construction, drilling or completions aren’t finished by Oct. 15, 2019, Crestone will meet with CPW “to discuss timing stipulations and mitigation measures for the eagles’ roost.”

Arend continues, “It would be the desire of the COGCC that Crestone would cease any operations during the nesting eagle timing stipulations next November.”

But that doesn’t make sense to attorney Mike Chiropolos, who represents Front Range Nesting Bald Eagle Studies (FRNBES), a conservation and scientific research nonprofit that tracks bald eagle migratory patterns and presence in the area. 

“That’s like saying we’ll allow them to start work on the 10-story building in the spring, and meet about the five-story height limit next fall when they’re still working on the third or fourth story,” he counters. 

Additionally, it makes little economic sense for Crestone. According to industry experts, just having a drill on location costs $21,000 per day even when sitting idle, and even a short-term shutdown could cost a company up to $65,000 per day. While it is possible for a company to stop operations in the middle of drilling wells, according to the COGCC, the industry perspective is that such a halt would be a huge financial burden. 

“Drilling and completing a well is a multi-million-dollar endeavor. Production decline curves are steep, so you have to drill to produce,” says Dan Haley with the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “If a company suddenly and unexpectedly must stop its work for several months, that can disrupt investment plans, employment needs, contracts with service providers, and a company’s general ability to operate.”

Crestone’s Ford didn’t address questions about the economic feasibility of taking a break from the company’s year-long drilling schedule during the winter roosting months, but she did say, “CPW, Crestone and the Town of Frederick met and discussed the schedule and proposed mitigations and there was never an indication from CPW that we would have to cease operations after November 15.”

Mitigation measures, such as limiting activity to the middle of the day and erecting visual and sound barriers, were discussed, she says, and Crestone “will likely put into place any recommendations they have for us.” 

But recommendations are just that: They aren’t enforceable by law. And not drilling at night would double the time needed to get Dream Weaver producing. At an all in cost of $216,000 a day while a well is drilling, it seems hard to believe that an oil company in the current industry environment would voluntarily double the time it takes to drill.  

 FRNBES, through Chiropolos, has formally asked the COGCC to “immediately suspend and reconsider” Crestone’s Dream Weaver project before construction begins in the hopes of an alternative site review, and protecting the bald eagles through next roosting season and beyond.  

“Let’s get it right before we start drilling,” Chiropolis says. Because, “once you start building … it’s pretty much game over.”