This year will mark the end of one of Colorado’s most innovative efforts to offset the impacts to wildlife from BP America Production Co.’s natural gas drilling in Southwest Colorado.
In 2007, the state set standards for oil and gas companies to minimize impacts to wildlife and required that they consult with the Division of Wildlife (now Colorado Parks and Wildlife) if they wanted to drill in an area deemed important for wildlife.
But for large companies with a substantial stake in a particular oil and gas field, the state standards allowed for a landscape mitigation plan.
The plan would benefit operators by streamlining permitting. For wildlife, the plan analyzed the broader landscape as opposed to each individual site.
Southwest Colorado, with its large deer and elk herds and vast natural gas reserves in the San Juan Basin, was the perfect candidate for the mitigation plan, said Jon Holst, energy liaison for CPW’s Southwest Colorado region.
And no company made a better partner than the largest operator in the region, BP America Production Co.
In the late 2000s, Parks and Wildlife, with the Nature Conservancy, teamed with BP to work on a plan for Southwest Colorado, surveying the energy giant’s potential development in the region while looking for crucial wildlife habitat that could be preserved in the process.
The result, Holst said, was a plan that required BP to place as many acres in a conservation easement as the company planned for oil and gas development. If BP wanted to drill in highly sensitive areas to wildlife, that ratio could be as high as 5 conserved acres to every 1 developed acre.
Over six years, BP agreed to contribute $475,000 for studies examining the impacts natural gas development had on the region’s wildlife. The funds have been used to learn about deer, elk and even bald eagle migration patterns, Holst said.
In turn, BP was allowed to apply for blocks of facilities rather than one at a time.
BP did not return requests seeking comment for this story. In a 2011 statement, Jerry Austin, then the San Juan area operations manager for BP, lauded the plan.
“We are proud to enter into a plan that not only incorporates operational changes but also provides actual land preservation,” Austin said. “This collaborative effort allows for more long-term development planning and wildlife preservation that is designed and customized specifically for the San Juan Basin.”
In all, BP built 127 facilities, wells and pipelines that affected about 350 acres after the agreement was put in place. Throughout the basin, BP operates about 1,390 wells in Colorado and another 2,440 wells in New Mexico.
In turn, the company has placed about 418 acres in permanent conservation easements.
More recently, BP in 2017 preserved about 187 acres off County Road 523 near the HD Mountains as open space that was seen as an important winter range for elk and deer.
“The contributions highlight BP’s ongoing commitment to mitigating the impact of its operations on the environment and to working with local communities,” a BP spokesman wrote to The Durango Herald at the time.
Despite the effort, Southwest Colorado’s elk and deer herds struggle. But Holst said it’s not fair to blame oil and gas development.
Habitat loss from residential and commercial development, recreation such as hiking and hunting, as well as drought all play a role in big game’s decline.
“It’s not just one thing,” he said. “I wish we could deal with all types of development with a landscape mitigation approach like we did with BP. That would be ideal.”
In addition to protecting rangeland, the agreement created “best management practices” for BP operations, which included automating well operations to limit truck traffic, storing drilling waste in closed tanks and drilling multiple wells from one pad when possible.
The net gain of the collaborative, he said, is substantial.
“This allowed higher quality properties for wildlife we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise,” Holst said. “If we had to do it again, yeah, we’d do it again.”
But now, the project is ending. Late last year, BP announced it was selling its stake in the San Juan Basin to a European renewable energy company. The sell-off is part of a trend in the natural gas field, which was one of the largest producers in the U.S.
Increasingly, mainstay companies like BP, ConocoPhillips and Williams Partners are dropping out of the San Juan Basin, and smaller companies are taking their place.
The collaborative between the state and BP was one of the first of its kind, certainly for the Southwest. And while it set a model that works, for smaller companies, it’s not as financially possible.
“Every time there’s a new operator, we talk about an approach like this,” Holst said. “But so far, no one is willing because the economics don’t add up. That’s one of the benefits of a larger operator. You can do stuff like this.”