Oil and Gas Activites Within the National Wildlife Refuge System

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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 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.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) found that about one-quarter of all refuges (155 of 575) 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 cases 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, while 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 a report from August 2003, 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. The House Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans called FWS in for an oversight hearing in October, 2004, wherein members pressed the FIsh and Wildlive Service to ensure the establishment of a standardized, effective training program to educate staff of the legal and environmental responsibilities of managing oil and gas activities. (10/31/03)

Look into the debate regarding oil and gas exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

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, and Katie Ackerly, AGI/AAPG 2005 Spring Semester Intern.

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

Last updated on January 25, 2005