The legacy of oil and gas exploration and production is evident at many national wildlife refuges. The presence of active pump jacks and storage tanks in these wildlife areas is a reminder of our need for energy to fuel our economy and way of life. But the sight of abandoned oilfield equipment no longer in use is at odds with the purposes of these refuges and visitors' desire to view wild places. Derelict pump jacks, tanks and other oilfield equipment are not just eyesores. They present hazards to the refuge environment and to public safety.
Stairs, catwalks and ladders on tanks or other oilfield storage vessels and pump jacks pose a human safety risk. Storage tanks and catwalks in the floodplains of large rivers are typically located on elevated platforms; platforms are more than 20 feet above the ground in some refuges in Louisiana and Mississippi. Abandoned elevated platforms supporting tanks can collapse and pose a serious safety risk. Pump jacks can be 30 feet or higher. Abandoned above-ground flowlines or small diameter pipelines and well casings that protrude above the ground pose a hazard to refuge staff engaged in management activities such as mowing. Tall, dense vegetation can hide these pipes, which can damage refuge equipment and vehicles.
Abandoned oilfield equipment can also harm wildlife. Abandoned tanks and separators can leak and contaminate soil, water and vegetation. Open-topped tanks, buckets and other containers with oil and water can attract and entrap wildlife, especially insects, small mammals and songbirds. Abandoned oilfield equipment left on a refuge can limit a refuge manager’s restoration and management options. The extent of abandoned equipment throughout the National Wildlife Refuge System is unknown.
Currently, there are an estimated 90,000 abandoned or orphan wells in the United States. An orphan well is defined as a well that is not producing or injecting fluids, is not permitted to remain inactive by the appropriate state regulatory agency, and the operator is unknown or insolvent. Oil operators that abandon inactive wells and the surface production equipment place the burden of plugging and abandonment and site reclamation on the taxpayer, since the costs are borne by the state oil and gas agency or the federal government. The Texas Railroad Commission spent $1.2 million to remove abandoned oilfield equipment and plug orphan wells in the East Lake unit of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas. At St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi, plugging one orphan well and site restoration cost the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency $260,000.
Removing abandoned oilfield equipment is not as easy as hauling the rusted pump jacks, empty tanks, and pipes off the refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must weigh the potential liability resulting from equipment removal. For example, Oklahoma allows the removal and salvage of abandoned oilfield equipment so long as the integrity of the well is not compromised.
The National Wildlife Refuge System’s Energy Team has developed a plan to identify and maintain a database of abandoned oilfield equipment on national wildlife refuges, identifying legal constraints and liabilities for removing that equipment, and developing protocols for removal of the equipment and site restoration. The team is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies to identify abandoned or orphan well sites, plug orphan wells, and remove abandoned oilfield equipment.