The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has published a modified rule to govern the management of non-federal oil and gas development on National Wildlife Refuge System lands.
The revisions to the 50-year-old regulations, published in the Federal Register in October, allow for the continued responsible extraction of oil and gas, but require closer adherence to industry best management practices.
The revisions will prevent the potentially hazardous abandonment of infrastructure and disposal of debris onto refuges. Abandoned pump jacks, tanks, power lines and oilfield trash litter about 15 percent of refuges nationwide. In addition there are an estimated 450 unplugged wells and unrestored sites that have no known operator. A fundamental benefit of the revised regulations is to prevent potentially hazardous abandonment of wells, debris and other structures. Unused wells must be plugged, above-ground structures removed, vegetation re-established and disturbed areas restored to productive habitat. The final revised regulations also require oil and gas operators to report and respond to spills immediately.
Individuals, corporations, state and local governments and tribes retain ownership of subsurface minerals on many Service lands, including national wildlife refuges, and have the legal right to develop those resources. More than 100 refuges have oil and gas operations, including almost 1,700 wells actively producing oil and gas, and thousands more inactive or plugged wells.
The revisions will ensure that non-federal oil and gas operations are conducted in a manner that avoids or minimizes impacts to refuge resources and uses by providing: regulatory clarity and guidance to oil and gas operators and refuge staff; a simple process for compliance; and flexibility to incorporate technological improvements in exploration and drilling technology across different environments.
The new regulations provide tools for the Service to work with operators through a permitting process that avoids the most damaging impacts of oil and gas development. The regulations will also allow refuge managers to prescribe measures to prevent or minimize negative impacts.