Deep Fork pails, © FWS

Protecting national wildlife refuges requires more than duct tape

On Tuesday, I spoke on behalf of our country’s national wildlife refuge lands and the many species of wildlife that depend on them for survival. Standing before a House Natural Resources Committee subcommittee, I testified at the hearing regarding a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to develop regulations of privately owned oil and gas underneath national wildlife refuges.

Totaling more than 150 million acres, the National Wildlife Refuge System is the world’s largest system of protected areas dedicated first and foremost to wildlife conservation. Yet over 200 national wildlife refuges have existing oil and gas infrastructure including 103 refuges and four wetland management districts that have active oil and gas wells. In total there are more than 5,000 wells, with almost 1,700 of those wells actively producing oil and gas.

Oil Leak Fix on Tensas Refuge/photo: FWS

Plastic bags and duct tape used to “fix” a leaky oil pipe on Tensas National Wildlife Refuge.

You might be wondering why this is allowed. In many places around the country the surface of the land is split from what is underneath because the oil and gas or other minerals are valuable. And in those places, where there is important wildlife habitat, the Fish and Wildlife Service is rarely able to acquire the mineral rights underneath the wildlife refuge lands they purchase for protection. Under the constitution, the Fish and Wildlife Service has to allow access to individual’s private property – even if it is underneath the ground.

But the Service can and should have a say in how that access should occur. Unfortunately, because of a bad case the Service lost, and an equally bad legal opinion issued by Reagan administration, the Service has acted for far too long as if it has had no authority whatsoever to impose even minimal reasonable restrictions on this development – until now.

Back in February, the Service announced that it would be taking comments on the management of oil and gas drilling within federal wildlife refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System, in order to prepare new regulations governing access to non-federal oil and gas on national wildlife refuges.

During my testimony, I informed the subcommittee about several instances of unchecked damage to refuges caused by unregulated operations, including several cases that, even after having been reported to me by my staff that encountered them, still shock me to talk about. Brine spills that refuge staff had not been aware of, 55 gallon drums oozing toxic chemicals, oil-topped open waste ponds, abandoned storage tanks and rusted pipes were just some of the harrowing images I shared.

It is important to note that when combined, all of these seemingly “isolated” incidents of impact from oil and gas can be just as dangerous as the large, infamous spills that dominate the media – in fact, even frequent small spills can be deadly over time. A study conducted by the Service on two refuges in Louisiana even found that “levels of oil contamination near oil and gas facilities are lethal to most species of wildlife, even though refuge staff were not aware of any large spills.”

When I presented this information, along with photographs of leaky oil pipes that had been “fixed” using plastic bags and duct tape, I almost couldn’t believe the response that Rep. McAllister gave (view the video here). And, truthfully I thought at first that he was joking when he said that that was an “innovative” solution – that the operator had shown “initiative.” Sadly, Rep. McAllister was not joking, and it is these kinds of attitudes that are devastating our refuges and wildlife, and are costing taxpayers millions of dollars in damages and cleanup bills.

There is simply no reason that our national refuges and the wildlife they support (including many imperiled and endangered species) must suffer because of a gross lack of adequate regulations on operations that have at least basic protections on other types of land ownership situations. Why is it that there is comprehensive and substantive oversight of the same kinds of activities within the National Park System, but not throughout the National Wildlife Refuge System? There is no question that the unchecked activities of private oil and gas operations on refuges have gone on way too long – in many ways the absence of oversight on these lands in this regard has created an environment that resembles a “wild west.” The Service has been charged with protecting these resources and species, and has the authority to do so – it’s high time it puts an end to the gallon drum spills and duct-taped pipes that are the armed bank robberies and town-center duels of some of our nation’s most important federally protected lands.

Noah Matson is Vice President of Lands Conservation for Defenders of Wildlife

28 Responses to “Protecting national wildlife refuges requires more than duct tape”

  1. R Matthew Simmons

    I made the mistake once of dumping an almost full bowl of cereal into our kitchen garbage can. A day or two later I pulled the bag out to throw it away… needless to say I had a mess to clean up both inside the garbage can and on my kitchen floor. I ‘innovated’ by realizing that was a bad idea and never dumped more than a spoonful or two of liquid into a garbage bag again.
    But what do I know, I was in elementary school when that happened.

  2. Jack Wills

    Thank you for your diligence, Noah. It’s a sad situation when the people elected to protect our national interests, including the wildlife refuge system, instead focus on protecting those who are intent on destroying the environment within the refuges. Unfortunately, this will continue as long as their pockets are lined by the people who are extracting the natural resources.

  3. Dian Lovejoy

    This is so disgusting, I knew there were rotten things going on in our wildlife preserves, but oh I didn’t know it was this bad.

  4. Shirley Smith

    I will definitely ot be voting to re-elect anyone who has the mentality of senator McCalister! Sadly, we have a whole government full of individuals who are exactly like him, and they should all be voted out of office. Just a bunch of fat cats collecting a salary without earning it!!!

  5. Cynthia Ostrander

    I am so sick of the government not doing what they can to protect or lands and wildlife. If it’s something the taxpayer want, they ignore it, it it belongs to some big business they are paid to look the other way, if it does not put money in their pockets they don’t want it. Greed and corruption by our government is destroying this country. They still haven’t made BP fix the oil leak in the gulf and that is big bucks spilling out everyday not to mention the ocean life it is killing. Our survival depends on the care and wildlife off this planet. If it dies off so do we, then what will money get you, nothing that’s what!

  6. Dave Martin

    I applaud your efforts Noah…unfortunate, but at the subcommittee level there is always at least one Rep. that falls into the shit for brains category, though usually several, and that is one of the reasons we have such an environmental disaster happening.

  7. Cliff Jennewein

    I feel the same way as Jack.We are seeing the greed of politicians and their cronies.I know I receive emails daily about national wildlife refuges and endangered species also need protection.this makes me feel the people responsible to enforce the law,are saying to me,f***you.This is no surprise,they have been the same.When President Reagan deregulated industry and Corporations,allowing them to cause great harm to the earth and it’s creatures.$$$$$always seems to win.We don’t “own”this Earth,we have been given the blessing of life for a time.We must do whatever we can to protect Planet Earth.Shame on you people who do not.

  8. Ginger Mynatt

    Thank you for posting this. I am concerned locally for Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge on Lake Texoma which has more than 200 active wells. I appreciated being able to link HNWR’s problems to a larger national problem and plan to write some related articles.

  9. Rhodia

    …UGH..!!, Wow.., this really proves that “wearing a suit” will not magically make a person smarter… Hey, isn’t it about time we all wake up from this NIGHTMARE..??? I mean, honestly, “FOSSIL FUELS” in 2014..???, COME ON..!!!?

  10. Kathleen Towne-Lutz

    This is horrific!! Laws/policies need to change or written to end this!! Humans
    are destroying everything as is big oil!! These people are greedy and don’t
    care much about our environment. That’s why we have to continue to fight!

  11. Marga

    When reading this I could hardly believe what I read. This person shows just how high his intelligence is = NIL. This sort of people are only interested in money, power and their very own interests!!! That’s so devastating!!!!

  12. Maya Gorina

    Thank you Noah, I think you can send it to EPA and somebody of Senators of that states. Even to Barak Obama. Maya.

  13. Barbara

    Unfortunately our votes are wanted during elections, but most promises made are not kept. Too many people don’t even know what the candidates they elect stand for. They believe all the TV ads. They certainly believe those slick ads with BP telling us how much they care and what a wonderful job they have done with the clean up! And, of course the ads that tell us how clean natural gas is and Fracking will create jobs. I fear for my children’s and grand children’s future.

  14. Maddi

    If you’re saying that you are going to protect the wildlife, then please, protect the wildlife. It there was a gas leak in your home you wouldn’t repair it with a plastic bag and some duct tape so please put the same effort you would put into yourself into these endangered animals.

  15. Doug

    It is extremely sad how this nation treats its wildlife and the habitats they need in which to survive, especially when some moron thinks he can profit from exploiting those lands. To make a refuge of contaminated land is equally cynical and uncaring. Little wonder the world overall is in such a mess, with this moronic mentality running amok. The human race certainly could do far better at accommodation of wildlife than it has to date.

  16. Elle

    I just looked at this a second time (and tweeted the clip) and I am so disgusted by the idiocy of our Politicians I am unable to find the words. It is the case that we are surrounded by the most radical assault ON Wildlife by Super PACs formed expressly for that purpose. Ignorance is never a justification for anything.

  17. Marsha

    As long as de-regulation on the oil and gas industry is allowed, nothing is going to change. Too many government officials let money and power come before the welfare of our people, wildlife and environment. It’s going to take the masses of people to get together and stand up for what is right. Vote out the wrongdoers. Anyone who is working against the good of this country, it’s people and environment should be labeled as traitors.

  18. Barbara Howard

    Noah and all the folks at Defenders of Wildlife,
    Thank you for your tireless advocating for our priceless National Wildlife Refuge System.

  19. Sushil

    Etsi einai. Kai na frontissoume na aaopxrtitheume apo to petrelaio osso mporoume. Enallaktikes piges energeias, gia na exoume pio ftini energeia. An den vriskoume monoi mas lisseis kai perimenoume apo tous “igetes” mas, tha sernomaste sinexos sto xoma. Elina

  20. MM

    How sad and disheartening. We need to elect people if character and common sense. This idiocy is frightening.

  21. Vicki

    There is a negative attached to NIMBY people (Not In My BackYard) by some, yet
    if we wouldn’t take care of our own backyard by using trashbags and duct tape to ‘fix’ leaks….why should it be done in our name on OUR federal lands – owned by all of us ? And these are only the few details that we know about. I believe that situations like this are like icebergs – much of the substance of what is going on is not seen. Still happening…still oozing into nearby streams, still fouling the air and releasing toxic gases and those that increase global warming. We can’t have the fox guarding the henhouse. Accountability needed everyday, everywhere, every reason….just like we would in our own backyard

  22. Daniel

    This is actually a rare occurence in the oil industry. The condition of these well sites is atrocious and whoever is operating them should be shut down. I work for the environmental department of an oil company, and I can tell you first hand that the majority of our operations are done much more responsibly than this. And deregulation of the oil industry? Are you aware of all of the regulations we have to abide by? I am currently staring at stacks of legislation on my desk that I have to study and review for the current EPA and BLM regulations. We are not being deregulated. Just look at the newest air quality regulations, specifically the methane emission reduction plans.

    Modern drilling, operating, transporting and refining procedures are considerably better than what we used to operate on in the past. We are always trying to do it as responsibly as we can because, lets face it….this industry is not going anywhere. We might as well use the best technology and practices available to operate responsibly.

    Why do I work for an oil company? Because I want to provide for my family. I have a science degree, and I worked for 2 years as a high school science teacher. However, I struggled to pay my bills (including student loans) and led a very stressful life where I could not even save anything above $200 in my bank account. I was constantly defaulting. So when I heard of an opening in the environmental department of an oil company, I jumped on it. I get paid significantly more, I can finally afford to help my parents out financially, I am actually paying off my student loans and I can finally save money to buy a house and settle down to start a family. So when all the ads say the oil industry and fracking will create jobs….it is 100% true. And why would I want to destroy my environment? I live here in the exact town where the majority of our operations are being performed on a daily basis.

    Please do not let horrible examples like this one make you think that the rest of the oil industry is like this. This operator should be shut down.

  23. Marilyn McClelland

    It is grossly irresponsible to do anything in National Parks, Reserves and in Wildlife Refuge areas other than leave them natural and protected. Time, effort, money and forward thinking by great people went into preserving these areas for all time and no one should be able to undermine that. Changing that protecting to allow dangerous, polluting mining and fracking is nothing short of criminal and if anyone else was found destroying an area they would be fined. This erosion of your natural areas and animal habitat MUST stop or there will be no nature left and we will all be the worse off for it. Governments are elected to take care of the us and therefore the environment NOT appease oil and gas corporations so their insatiable greed and destruction takes over! RISE UP!

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