On Tuesday, I spoke on behalf of our country’s national wildlife refuge lands and the many species of wildlife that depend on them for survival. Standing before a House Natural Resources Committee subcommittee, I testified at the hearing regarding a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to develop regulations of privately owned oil and gas underneath national wildlife refuges.
Totaling more than 150 million acres, the National Wildlife Refuge System is the world’s largest system of protected areas dedicated first and foremost to wildlife conservation. Yet over 200 national wildlife refuges have existing oil and gas infrastructure including 103 refuges and four wetland management districts that have active oil and gas wells. In total there are more than 5,000 wells, with almost 1,700 of those wells actively producing oil and gas.
You might be wondering why this is allowed. In many places around the country the surface of the land is split from what is underneath because the oil and gas or other minerals are valuable. And in those places, where there is important wildlife habitat, the Fish and Wildlife Service is rarely able to acquire the mineral rights underneath the wildlife refuge lands they purchase for protection. Under the constitution, the Fish and Wildlife Service has to allow access to individual’s private property – even if it is underneath the ground.
But the Service can and should have a say in how that access should occur. Unfortunately, because of a bad case the Service lost, and an equally bad legal opinion issued by Reagan administration, the Service has acted for far too long as if it has had no authority whatsoever to impose even minimal reasonable restrictions on this development – until now.
Back in February, the Service announced that it would be taking comments on the management of oil and gas drilling within federal wildlife refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System, in order to prepare new regulations governing access to non-federal oil and gas on national wildlife refuges.
During my testimony, I informed the subcommittee about several instances of unchecked damage to refuges caused by unregulated operations, including several cases that, even after having been reported to me by my staff that encountered them, still shock me to talk about. Brine spills that refuge staff had not been aware of, 55 gallon drums oozing toxic chemicals, oil-topped open waste ponds, abandoned storage tanks and rusted pipes were just some of the harrowing images I shared.
It is important to note that when combined, all of these seemingly “isolated” incidents of impact from oil and gas can be just as dangerous as the large, infamous spills that dominate the media – in fact, even frequent small spills can be deadly over time. A study conducted by the Service on two refuges in Louisiana even found that “levels of oil contamination near oil and gas facilities are lethal to most species of wildlife, even though refuge staff were not aware of any large spills.”
When I presented this information, along with photographs of leaky oil pipes that had been “fixed” using plastic bags and duct tape, I almost couldn’t believe the response that Rep. McAllister gave (view the video here). And, truthfully I thought at first that he was joking when he said that that was an “innovative” solution – that the operator had shown “initiative.” Sadly, Rep. McAllister was not joking, and it is these kinds of attitudes that are devastating our refuges and wildlife, and are costing taxpayers millions of dollars in damages and cleanup bills.
There is simply no reason that our national refuges and the wildlife they support (including many imperiled and endangered species) must suffer because of a gross lack of adequate regulations on operations that have at least basic protections on other types of land ownership situations. Why is it that there is comprehensive and substantive oversight of the same kinds of activities within the National Park System, but not throughout the National Wildlife Refuge System? There is no question that the unchecked activities of private oil and gas operations on refuges have gone on way too long – in many ways the absence of oversight on these lands in this regard has created an environment that resembles a “wild west.” The Service has been charged with protecting these resources and species, and has the authority to do so – it’s high time it puts an end to the gallon drum spills and duct-taped pipes that are the armed bank robberies and town-center duels of some of our nation’s most important federally protected lands.
Noah Matson is Vice President of Lands Conservation for Defenders of Wildlife