Most Refuges Not Open to Drilling

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, November 12, 2001 (ENS) - If the Bush administration succeeds in persuading Congress to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, it would represent a departure from the government's recent pattern of barring most drilling within refuges. Environmentalists fear that Congressional approval could also set a dangerous precedent for the opening of other protected public lands.


Ninety-five percent of Alaska's North Slope, which contains the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, is already open to energy exploration. The Bush administration proposes to open the remaining five percent (Photo courtesy Arctic National Wildlife Refuge)
Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, asked the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress to review past government policy on energy exploration in national wildlife refuges. The GAO reported that about 14 percent of all refuges - 77 refuges located in 22 states - had some kind of oil and gas drilling or exploration last year.

However, the report also shows that over the past 35 years, the government has only granted leases for energy production on refuges where energy companies were already producing oil or gas from beneath public lands, using wells on adjacent private lands.

This tradition of restricting energy development on refuge lands dates back to the 1966 passage of the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, which defined the refuge system as it exists today. The Act defined wildlife conservation as the primary mission of national wildlife refuges, and set up a system for deciding what uses of refuge lands are compatible with that mission.


Exploration rig in the Alaskan arctic (Photo courtesy Arctic Power)
"Since passage of this legislation, the Fish and Wildlife Service has approved the issuance of 13 leases," for energy development on five wildlife refuges, the GAO found. "In each case, the leases were issued because operators on land adjacent to the refuge boundaries were draining oil or gas resources owned by the federal government from refuge land without compensation."

Representative Markey asked the GAO for the report due to concerns that allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) - a cornerstone of President George W. Bush's national energy policy - would set a bad precedent for the future of other refuges. He noted that supporters of drilling on ANWR's North Slope argue that many refuges already allow drilling.

In January, Senator John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, wrote an opinion piece for "The Wall Street Journal" in which he argued in favor of ANWR oil drilling. Breaux's home state has allowed oil and gas production from 1,605 wells on refuges, including some with "fragile wetlands," for almost 60 years, he noted.

"If Louisiana can do it, why can't Alaska?" Breaux wrote, arguing that the energy activities have had "few adverse consequences."

The GAO found that Louisiana and Texas, both major oil producing states, hold the most wildlife refuges with oil and natural gas activities on their land. In most of these, energy development was either already underway when the refuges were created, or the mineral rights to the refuges were already owned by private companies.


Representative Edward Markey (Photo courtesy Office of the Representative)
In July, Markey argued before Congress against approving oil drilling in ANWR, warning that the refuge's North Slope "has never before been subject to such development," and opening the refuge "would set a precedent not only for ANWR but for national wildlife refuges and other conservation areas throughout the United States."

"Energy development is inherently incompatible with the purposes of the refuge," Markey said. "There are preferable alternatives for energy development that allow us to meet energy needs while preserving the pristine character of the refuge."

oiled bird

Oil spills can be deadly to wildlife (Two photos courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
Drilling opponents note that the 19.8 million acre Arctic refuge is a pristine wilderness, and that most of its wildlife is concentrated on the coastal plain - precisely where the Bush administration proposes to drill for oil. They warn that drilling activities are likely to disrupt the movement of the Porcupine caribou herd, which uses the coastal plain as its primary calving ground.

Opponents also fear the effects of potential catastrophic oil spills on the fragile tundra.

According to the GAO, the Department of Interior requires energy companies to minimize damage, erosion, pollution or contamination to the refuge lands where they are permitted to drill. Yet only one of the refuges where drilling occurs - the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana - has an employee assigned full time to managing oil and gas activities.

No refuge has funding dedicated solely to managing energy activities, and so must find a way to fund these needs through other departments.

oiled water

The Environmental Protection Agency says a single pint of oil can cover an acre of the water's surface
After reviewing the GAO's report, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) noted that the Refuge Management Information System database, which it provided to the GAO to help the agency identify which refuges have energy activities, does not include a list of which refuges are crossed by oil or natural gas pipelines. The USFWS said it therefore does not have a comprehensive list of which refuges are vulnerable to an oil or gas spill.

For example, the USFWS database did not include the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Tinicum, Pennsylvania, where a pipeline break spilled about 180,000 gallons of crude oil in February 2000.