Wildlife agency seeks overhaul of refuge drilling rules

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) wants to overhaul the way it regulates oil and natural gas drilling on wildlife refuges.

The new standards proposed Thursday seek to ensure that old wells are properly plugged, spills are contained, land managers can minimize the impacts of drilling, spills are properly detected and other measures.

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The current rules regarding oil and gas drilling on refuges it owns are five decades old, and the agency said updates are needed to effectively protect wildlife and their habitats from the impacts of drilling.

“These proposed rule revisions strike an appropriate balance between the rights of owners to develop energy resources with the service’s critical role in protecting refuges and the fish and wildlife that depend upon them,” FWS Director Dan Ashe said in a statement.

“Refuges are national treasures offering unparalleled opportunities for Americans of all ages, means and backgrounds to hunt, fish, hike, boat and just enjoy being outdoors,” he said. “We owe it to this and future generations to meet our mission responsibility.”

Drilling is generally prohibited on the country’s more than 500 wildlife refuges. But when refuge property has been transferred to the federal government from a private owner, the mineral rights sometimes are not transferred, and the owners of those rights maintain the ability to drill.

More than 100 wildlife refuges host nearly 1,700 active wells, in addition to thousands of inactive ones.

The proposed regulation responds in part to a March report from the Interior Department’s inspector general, which found problems in the way FWS oversees drilling in its refuges.

“Due to minimal and vague national guidance, and questions about FWS’ legal authority, FWS’ management of oil and gas development activities on national wildlife refuges is inconsistent,” the watchdog agency wrote.

“Inconsistent management has also left FWS’ refuges littered with orphaned or abandoned oil and gas infrastructure that could threaten the health and safety of wildlife, the safety of refuge visitors, and damage the environment.”

That report also called for a database of FWS wells, something that had been on the agency’s radar since 2003 but not yet implemented.