Oil and Gas Development Poses Land Conservation Challenges

Oil and gas development in the Rockies presents private land conservation groups with new issues to deal with in the protection of land and habitat, says Steve Boyle, a wildlife biologist who consults for oil companies and conservation groups on environmental issues.

Mineral rights in the West are often “severed,” meaning that the owner of the rights to oil and gas below the surface is usually different from the owner of the surface. This means that a conservation easement, for instance, may not protect the resource that the group is working for, because impacts from priority oil and gas use may supersede surface rights.

One issue is “what kind of stewardship issue is the conserving organization going to have?” Boyle said. “Is the property that could be subjected to this subsurface development, is that a project that you even want to take on?

“The conserving organization shouldn’t start with a default idea that just because it’s subsurface `We can do the deal.’ … I think you want to step back and think very carefully about the potential impacts of subsurface mining, and say to yourself, `Can we even live with these potential impacts?'”

Colorado conservation groups want to protect an additional two million acres of land through private philanthropy by 2015. The rapid increase in oil and gas development in the state could complicate the preservation issues associated even with privately funded and owned land protection.

According to the Colorado Conservation Trust, about 90 percent of the land protected in the state since 2004 is protected via conservation easement. The details of these easements vary, but essentially, the owner of a tract of land sells the right to develop the property. They may be able to stay on the land in a traditional use, like agriculture.

The CCT’s 2007 Land Conservation Report says:

“The Rocky Mountain region’s recent energy boom has rapidly transformed certain areas of Colorado, both economically and environmentally. Applications for oil and gas drilling permits increased by almost 500 percent over the last seven years, from 1,010 in 1999 to 5,904 in 2006. Estimates indicate that over 6,000 drilling permit applications will be approved in 2007-more than two-and-a-half times the record number of 2,378 permits approved in 1981 during Colorado’s last energy development boom. More than 30,000 oil and gas wells are currently operating statewide, and production has grown by 57 percent since 2000.”

This growth carries important implications for the goal of protecting land through private initiative, Boyle says. He cited a project in Montrose County in which a 40-acre plot had been preserved with private funding in order to protect a federally endangered plant.

“The conservation values are almost entirely about this endangered plant,” Boyle said. “It’s very vulnerable to site disturbance. Can the project withstand even a low likelihood of surface disturbance from subsurface activity?”

Boyle, the owner of BIO-Logic Environmental in Montrose, spoke at a session on “Mineral Development and Land Conservation in the Rocky Mountains” at the Land Trust Alliance’s Rally 2007: New Frontiers of Conservation being held in Denver this week.