National Wildlife Refuges to Regulate Oil and Gas Drilling

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National Wildlife Refuges to Regulate Oil and Gas Drilling

Agency Acts on PEER Rulemaking Petition to Curb Damage of Energy Production

Washington, DC — The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will adopt rules to protect National Wildlife Refuges from spills and contamination from oil and gas drilling in response to a rulemaking petition filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  Thousands of wells currently operate on refuges with little regulation.  That number is likely to skyrocket as natural gas from underground shale formations is tapped.  The notice of proposed rulemaking is slated for publication later this month.

In April 2011, PEER filed a formal petition asking the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS)–which operates the 556-unit National Wildlife Refuge System–to adopt rules modeled on ones the National Park Service has had in effect for more than 30 years.  Those rules require spill prevention and response, bonds for reclamation, proper waste disposal and reducing surface impacts.  The Park Service is also updating its rules to encourage directional drilling, tighten operating standards and hike bonding requirements while raising fees and penalties.  PEER is urging FWS to incorporate these improvements as well.

In a June 20, 2012 letter to PEER, Jim Kurth, FWS Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, wrote:

“The USFWS believes promulgating regulations for administering private minerals on refuge lands is necessary to fully protect our resources, as well as create a reasonable regulatory environment for private industry…We intend to conduct a thorough National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis of the proposed regulations, most likely resulting in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).”

The agency says it is now conducting “a national assessment of oil and gas developments across the National Wildlife Refuge System” acknowledging that it heretofore did not monitor the number, let alone the impacts, of drilling on refuges.  A 2003 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that –

  • More than one in four (155) national wildlife refuges have past or present oil or gas activity and account for 1.1% of national oil production and .04% of natural gas production;
  • Damage to refuge resources has occurred from spills, construction and operation.  For example, of 16 wildlife refuges visited by GAO, meant to be representative of the refuge system, 15 had suffered contamination from spills of oil or brine; and
  • FWS reported 348 spills in 2002 alone but this figure is low as not all spills are reported.

“Basic rules to shield the wildlife values of refuges from needless damage in energy production are long overdue,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization has brought a series of lawsuits against USFWS for violating NEPA in approving genetically engineered crops on refuge lands.  “These rules have worked well for more than a generation to protect our parks and there is no reason they cannot be successfully transplanted to our refuges.”

Contrary to the notion that refuges are inviolate preserves for wildlife, in actuality, most are open to drilling, mining, livestock grazing and agriculture as well as hunting and fishing.

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