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Oil and Gas Activites Within the National Wildlife Refuge System

Energy concerns raised during the past two Congresses have spurred action by both the administration and Congress towards creating a national energy policy. A controversial issue that has received a lot of press involves oil and natural gas exploration on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), located in the northeast corner of Alaska. With the exception of ANWR, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) typically owns only the surface rights to the land within the Wildlife Refuge System. The subsurface mineral rights are generally owned by private interests and, by law, they must be able to access them. FWS has gone to great lengths to form positive partnerships with these private interests so that they can work together cooperatively.

Department regulations require “to the greatest extent practicable,” that “all exploration, development and production operations” be conducted in such a manner as to “prevent damage, erosion, pollution, or contamination to the lands, waters, facilities, and vegetation of the area.” Further, “so far as practicable, such operations must also be conducted without interference with the operation of the refuge or disturbance to the wildlife thereon.” (50 C.F.R. Part 29.32)

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The House Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans held an oversight hearing on October 30th to examine the Fish and Wildlife System's management of the private oil and gas activities in the 95 million-acre system. Earlier this year, Subcommittee Chairman Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) requested the General Accounting Office (GAO), Congress' investigative arm, to issue the report because the debate about opening up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is raging and much is not known about current activities within the refuge system. The August 2003 report determined the extent of oil and gas activity on refuges, identified the environmental effects, and assessed the Fish and Wildlife Service's management and oversight of these activities.

With a copy of the GAO report in hand, at the beginning of the hearing Chairman Gilchrest asked the central question, "Are there resources or authority that FWS needs that it does not currently have in order to monitor oil and gas activities in refuges effectively?" The Subcommittee received testimony from, and engaged in a lively question-and-answer session with, David Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks at the Interior Department and Barry Hill, Director of Natural Resources and Environment at the General Accounting Office (his testimony is available at, report # GAO-04-192T).

The GAO found that there is great disparity in the way each refuge monitors oil and gas activities on its lands. Some refuges have highly successful programs in place managed by knowledgeable staff. Other refuges have staff that did not know oil and gas activities were occurring on the refuge, let alone have any sort of oversight or management activities in place. While they did concede that greater attention to drilling activities would increase understanding of environmental impacts and lead to consistent practices in all refuges, FWS earnestly stated that it is not currently seeking additional authority or funds with which to better manage these lands. However, it was clear from the tone of the report and FWS' tap dancing at the hearing that some refuges are not managing these resources well at all.

Both Chairman Gilchrest and Rep. Markey pressed the FWS about putting a program in place to better educate and lend support to their staff. FWS finally said that they would give staff guidance in the form of a "workbook" to bring staff knowledge up to a more uniform level and they will hold a conservation training program wherein the legal and environmental responsibilities of managing these activities are better explained to the staff. Upon further, relentless, questioning, FWS said that they will have completed these two goals within six months. Chairman Gilchrest said that he looked forward to a follow-up oversight hearing in April.

The Subcommittee also encouraged FWS to seek comment from the Interior Department's legal team so that they have a clear, uniform and service-wide understanding of the difference between reserve rights and outstanding rights. (10/31/03)


The 95-million acres in the National Wildlife Refuge System are the only federal lands primarily devoted to the conservation and management of fish, wildlife, and plant resources. While the federal government owns the surface lands in the system, in many cases private parties own the subsurface mineral rights and have the legal authority to explore for and extract oil and gas.

GAO found that about one-quarter (155 of 575) of all refuges have past or present oil and gas activities, some dating to at least the 1920s. Activities range from exploration to drilling and production to pipelines transiting refuge lands. One hundred five refuges contain a total of 4,406 oil and gas wells - 2,600 inactive wells and 1,806 active wells. The 1,806 wells, located at 36 refuges, many around the Gulf Coast, produced oil and gas valued at $880 million during the last 12-month reporting period, roughly 1 percent of domestic production. Thirty-five refuges contain only pipelines.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has not assessed the cumulative environmental effects of oil and gas activities on refuges. Available studies, anecdotal information, and GAO's observations show that the environmental effects of oil and gas activities vary from negligible, such as effects from buried pipelines, to substantial, such as effects from large oil spills or from large-scale infrastructure. These effects also vary from the temporary to the longer term. Some of the most detrimental effects of oil and gas activities have been reduced through environmental laws and improved practices and technology. Moreover, oil and gas operators have taken steps, in some vases voluntarily, to reverse damages resulting from oil and gas activities.

Federal management and oversight of oil and gas activities varies widely among refuges - some refuges take extensive measures, wile others exercise little control or enforcement. GAO found that this variation occurs because of differences in authority to oversee private mineral rights and because refuge managers lack enough guidance, resources, and training to properly manage and oversee oil and gas activities. Greater attention to oil and gas activities by the Fish and Wildlife Service would increase its understanding of associated environmental effects and contribute to more consistent use of practices and technologies that protect refuge resources.

In the report, GAO recommended improved management and oversight of oil and gas activities, including having the Department of the Interior seek from Congress any necessary additional authority to ensure consistent and reasonable management of all oil and gas activities on refuges. (10/31/03)

Sources: General Accounting Office, Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Interior, Environment and Energy Daily, House Resources Committee website, hearing testimony.

Contributed by Emily M. Lehr, AGI Government Affairs Program

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on October 31, 2003