February 3, 2016
Mark Salvo

Tighter regulations would reduce damage from oil and gas drilling on national wildlife refuges

National wildlife refuges are fantastic places to visit – not only to enjoy gorgeous landscapes, but also for the chance to see some remarkable animals in the wild. Depending on which refuge you visit, you may spot a wandering herd of bison, an endless procession of spawning salmon, a flock of endangered whooping cranes, or some oil and gas drilling rigs.

Sandhill Cranes, © Matt Cooper

Wait, what?

It’s true. It may not be widely known, but oil and gas development is common on refuges, particularly in the Southeast (think Louisiana). The practice is the result of “split estate,” an interesting and often frustrating aspect of American property law. In many areas of the country, the right to own or use the surface of the land is “split” from the property rights to oil, gas and other minerals that lie underneath. In some cases, the Fish and Wildlife Service purchased land and water to protect wildlife habitat on the surface, but were unable to also acquire the underlying mineral rights. Under the Constitution, the agency must allow mineral rights holders—for example, an oil and gas company— access to develop their minerals from atop the wildlife refuge.

There are more than 5,000 active and inactive oil and gas wells and related infrastructure—including 1,300 miles of pipelines—on more than 200 wildlife refuges across the country. And drilling is expected to increase.

Pipe leaking oil on the Atchafalya National Wildlife Refuge

As you might expect, this development has taken its toll on refuge resources. Oil and gas drilling has destroyed and fragmented thousands of acres of wildlife habitat. Negligent operators have caused countless leaks and spills—of oil, drilling mud, brine and other contaminants—that have poisoned and killed countless fish and wildlife. Only about one-third of the wells on refuge lands are actively producing, which means that some of these lands are also littered with unplugged wells, rusty tanks, abandoned equipment, and other detritus from past drilling. And since most of these projects weren’t required to cover the costs of reclamation, taxpayers will ultimately foot the bill to clean up the mess.

Fortunately, help is on the way. Finally, for the first time since 1960, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to tighten restrictions on oil and gas development on national wildlife refuges.

After more than a year in development, the Service has proposed a new rule that is a major improvement over the existing, grossly inadequate regulation. The new rule would:

  • Place stricter standards on new drilling on refuges.
  • Require existing operations to remove their equipment and clean up their drilling sites when finished, or at least pay for somebody else to do so.
  • Improve the Service’s ability to permit and monitor oil and gas activities, and enforce requirements in the new rule.

It may not be perfect, but the new rule is miles better than the current system that fails to protect wildlife and sensitive habitats from avoidable damage. The National Wildlife Refuge System is the only network of public lands and waters dedicated specifically to wildlife conservation. More than 560 refuges protect seasonal stopovers for millions of birds migrating up and down the Americas, winter forage and birthing grounds for caribou, bighorn sheep and pronghorn, nesting beaches for sea turtles and essential habitat for hundreds of other imperiled species. Not to mention that refuges offer a host of recreational activities for tens of millions of visitors every year. Please join us in urging the Fish and Wildlife Service to finalize this rule with our recommendations to ensure proper management of oil and gas development on refuges in the future .


Mark Salvo headshot

Mark Salvo

Vice President, Landscape Conservation
Mark Salvo directs the organization's Landscape Conservation team to develop, review and implement complex policy and management planning on the National Forest System, National System of Public Lands, and the National Wildlife Refuge System, including siting, development and operation of renewable energy facilities on federal lands.

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