National Wildlife Refuge System

FAQs

Of the 1,665 active wells on national wildlife refuges, how many are oil wells?
Based on best available information, an estimated 257 wells produce primarily oil and eight wells produce a combination of oil and gas.  The rest produce primarily natural gas.


Do you have a database of oil and gas activities that occur on refuges?
We have a database developed from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) information, which was collected from each state. We extracted data in 2011 from the EPA dataset to form our own database.


How many Refuge staff are involved in oil and gas management?
The Service has 12 oil and gas-related positions, including three at the national office: a program coordinator, environmental contaminants specialist and a petroleum engineer.  Three oil and gas specialists work in the Southwest Region:  one oil and gas specialist, one law enforcement officer and one regional energy coordinator.  Additionally, this is a regional energy coordinator in the Mountain-Prairie Region, and an oil and gas specialist in Alaska.


How does the Refuge System track oil and gas activities nationally?
We have regional oil and gas coordinators who collate and share oil and gas data. The national team works with these coordinators to develop new tools such as a national spills database, oil and gas well and pipeline database, inspection and monitoring database, and other electronic inspection and monitoring forms, and guidance and other support tools.


Do you seek reimbursement from the owners of the abandoned, plugged or shut-in wells when they cause environmental damage?
When the Service becomes aware of a problematic well, we actively seek reimbursement from the owners if they have violated federal statutes. However, often there is no solvent owner to pursue for damages. In those cases, taxpayers shoulder the cost of the environmental damage.


Because of horizontal drilling, operators can extract non-federal oil and gas underlying refuges by working on privately-owned lands adjacent to a national wildlife refuge. How would regulations affect non-federal oil and gas activities like this?
Because of the scope of our authority, non-federal operations that occur on private lands outside a unit of the Refuge System would not be affected unless those operations have a direct impact on refuge resources.


Since the Service is concerned about abandoned wells and orphaned infrastructure equipment, why not confine the revision to these problems?
The Service is also concerned about minimizing immediate impacts on refuge resources from current operations and protecting the public health and safety.  Additionally, by definition, orphaned wells have no responsible party, so there is no entity to regulate. A comprehensive suite of revised regulations could prevent current operations from falling into disrepair and ultimately into abandoned or orphaned status.


Why are there nonfederal oil and gas minerals under Refuge System lands?
Nonfederal oil and gas rights exist in units of the Refuge System for the following reasons: 1) the rights remained in private ownership when a refuge was established or lands added through boundary expansions, and 2) in Alaska, the rights are part of land interests conveyed to Native corporations under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or held by the State of Alaska and other private landowners.


Why does the Service acquire land without purchasing the mineral rights?
There are several factors that influence the purchase of land without mineral rights. Service policy is to purchase the minimum interest necessary to accomplish its conservation mission. In many cases, it would be prohibitively expensive to purchase the mineral rights. Often, the mineral rights have already been sold (meaning, they are “outstanding” rights) and belong to someone other than the present surface landowner. In other cases, the surface landowner does not wish to sell the mineral rights.


What is a Plan of Operations?
The plan of operations is an operator’s blueprint of the scope of exploration, production, and reclamation. It details all activities of oil and gas development – including protective measures to minimize impacts to natural resources -- and describes how reclamation will be completed.  It is the basis for performance bonds.


What is a Special Use Permit (SUP)?
A special use permit (SUP) is issued by the National Wildlife Refuge System and authorizes a  permittee to engage in activities on a national wildlife refuge that otherwise would be prohibited. Refuge managers use SUPs to manage the amount and type of uses on an individual refuge. Permits are also used as a contract between the Refuge System and the permittee. They clearly explain the restrictions, policies and reporting, among other elements, required of a permittee, and they provide protection to the permittee by explaining what support to expect from the Service.


What are Operating Standards and Best Management Practices?
Operating standards and best management practices (BMPs) are state-of-the-art industry and agency procedures, practices and mitigation measures that provide for safe and efficient operations while minimizing undesirable impacts to the environment. These practices are applied to oil and gas exploration, drilling and production to help ensure that energy development is conducted in an environmentally responsible manner. Operating standards and BMPs can be incorporated into the plan of operations; are effective and enforceable; and are key to a successful oil and gas management program.

Proper planning and consultation between the operator and surface management agency, and the proactive incorporation of BMPs into the plan of operations typically result in a more efficient review process, increased operating efficiency, reduced long-term operating costs, reduced final reclamation needs, and less impact to the environment.


The current regulation (50 CFR 29.32) and policy in the Service Manual (602 FW 1-3) refer to nonfederally-owned mineral rights as “mineral rights reserved and excepted”. What are those?
Reserved mineral rights are mineral rights retained by the seller when the property is acquired by the Service. Excepted mineral rights (also called “outstanding” mineral rights) are owned by a third party when the Service acquires title to land.


How does the compatibility process affect the exercise of private mineral rights?
The compatibility standard, which requires that all activities do not impair or impact the wildlife mission of a national wildlife refuge, does not apply.  Federal law requires that the Service allow oil, gas and mineral activities, with the exception of surface coal mining, on refuges if the subsurface rights are privately owned.


What authority does the Service have to regulate privately owned minerals (nonfederal oil and gas rights)?
The legal authority for the Service to promulgate regulations is derived from the Property Clause and the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution and from various statutes enacted by Congress for the administration of the Refuge System.  The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, as amended by the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 (16 U.S.C. 668dd–668ee), states that the mission of the Refuge System is to “administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans,” and grants authority to the Service to establish policies and regulations for the administration and management of the Refuge System.


Why does the Service need to manage oil and gas activities on refuges when the states already regulate such activities?
State oil and gas commissions have a different mission than the Service.  State commissions are charged with administering oil and gas permits, while providing some level of protection to the surface owners.  In addition, while state regulations provide an important set of environmental protections, they vary significantly by state. The mission of the Refuge System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans. The Service’s legal mandates and regulatory requirements in relation to wildlife refuges exceed the states’ responsibilities.


Why not delegate permitting responsibility to state agencies?
The Service cannot delegate permitting responsibility because Federal law requires that the Department of the Interior (delegated to the Service) administer Refuge System lands, including oil and gas activities.


Why would an operator have to prove ownership or lease of private minerals before the Service would allow them to proceed with development?
The Service must ensure that an operator has a legal right to remove minerals before they begin operations.  The Service could be held liable for allowing an illegal taking of the private minerals.

 

 

Last updated: October 29, 2014