Washington, DC — Despite admitting “significant damages” from oil and gas operations on national wildlife refuge lands, there are still no safeguards against spills, leaks and other preventable contamination of these preserves. The responsible agency is still on the ground floor of adopting protective rules years after announcing that it would, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), which operates the network of 562 wildlife refuges, estimates oil or gas deposits exist on nearly half of all refuges; more than 200 refuges contain oil infrastructure with more than 100 active drilling operations, including 1,700 active wells and 1,300 miles of pipeline. Altogether, drilling on refuges accounts for approximately 1% of domestic production.
Unlike other federal land agencies, FWS has no rules governing basic safeguards such as spill prevention, reclamation bonds or requirements that best management practices be employed. In April 2011, PEER filed a formal rulemaking petition urging FWS to adopt rules modeled on enhanced rules then proposed by the National Park Service. More than a year later in June 2012, FWS announced that in response to the PEER petition it would begin “promulgating regulations for administering private minerals on refuge lands” and would “conduct a thorough… analysis of the proposed regulations, most likely resulting in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).”
For months, there was no public activity until a Federal Register notice of February 24, 2014 in which FWS issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking and notice of intent to prepare an EIS, declaring:
“The Refuge System has sustained significant damages to refuge resources from leaks and spills, inadequate plugging, abandonment and reclamation.”
The notice, however, indicates that FWS has not advanced from where it was two years earlier in that:
- “The Service is not currently proposing any specific approach for managing non-Federal oil and gas operations;”
- FWS remains uncertain on how to address a range of issues from financial assurances to access fees to whether to pattern its approach on National Park or U.S. Forest Service rules; and
- Without any discussion, FWS limited the scope of its consideration to private subsurface holdings, allowing federal holdings on Alaskan refuges to be left to Bureau of Land Management oversight without any refuge-specific restrictions.
“At this rate, the Obama presidential library will be built by the time these regulations are ready to be adopted,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that a major federal regulation averages between one year and 18 months from proposal to final promulgation – a timeline which should have had the refuge drilling regulations already on the books. “With scores of refuges at risk, the Fish & Wildlife Service should not be slow-walking needed protections.”
The public comment period on this preliminary notice ends tomorrow.
Besides direct contamination effects from releases, FWS points to indirect adverse impacts from oil and gas operations to wildlife such as habitat fragmentation, introduction of invasive species along roads and pipelines, increased predation of declining species and heightened exposure to disease.