National Wildlife Refuges:

Opportunities to Improve the Management and Oversight of Oil and Gas Activities on Federal Lands

GAO-03-517: Published: Aug 28, 2003. Publicly Released: Sep 23, 2003.

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The 95-million acre National Wildlife Refuge System contains federal lands devoted to the conservation and management of fish, wildlife, and plant resources. While the federal government owns the surface lands in the system, in many cases private parties own the subsurface mineral rights and have the legal authority to explore for and extract oil and gas. GAO was asked to determine the extent of oil and gas activity on refuges, identify the environmental effects, and assess the Fish and Wildlife Service's management and oversight of oil and gas activities.

About one-quarter (155 of 575) of all refuges have past or present oil and gas activity, some dating to at least the 1920s. Activities range from exploration to drilling and production to pipelines transiting refuge lands. One hundred five refuges contain a total of 4,406 oil and gas wells--2,600 inactive wells and 1,806 active wells. The 1,806 wells, located at 36 refuges and many around the Gulf Coast, produced oil and gas valued at $880 million during the last 12 month reporting period, roughly 1 percent of domestic production. Thirty-five refuges contain only pipelines. The Fish and Wildlife Service has not assessed the cumulative environmental effects of oil and gas activities on refuges. Available studies, anecdotal information, and GAO's observations show that the environmental effects of oil and gas activities vary from negligible, such as from buried pipelines, to substantial, such as from large oil spills or from large-scale infrastructure. These effects also vary from the temporary to the longer term. Some of the most detrimental effects of oil and gas activities have been reduced through environmental laws and improved practices and technology. Moreover, oil and gas operators have taken steps, in some cases voluntarily, to reverse damages resulting from oil and gas activities. Federal management and oversight of oil and gas activities varies widely among refuges--some refuges take extensive measures, while others exercise little control or enforcement. GAO found that this variation occurs because of differences in authority to oversee private mineral rights and because refuge managers lack enough guidance, resources, and training to properly manage and oversee oil and gas activities. Greater attention to oil and gas activities by the Fish and Wildlife Service would increase its understanding of associated environmental effects and contribute to more consistent use of practices and technologies that protect refuge resources.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: In light of the Department of the Interior's perceived limitation to its ability to seek expanded legislative authority over private mineral rights, Congress may wish to consider providing that authority. Ensuring that FWS has legal authority to issue permits to holders of both outstanding and reserved mineral rights would improve FWS's ability to consistently regulate and oversee oil and gas operations on wildlife refuges.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: As of August 2007, no action has been taken by the Congress to expand Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) authority over private mineral rights.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: As part of the process of improving the framework for managing and overseeing oil and gas activities on national wildlife refuges, the Secretary of the Interior and the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service should work with the Department of the Interior's Office of the Solicitor to seek from Congress, in coordination with appropriate Administration officials, including those within the Executive Office of the President, any necessary additional authority over such rights, and over reserved mineral rights, so that FWS can apply a consistent and reasonable set of regulatory and management controls over all oil and gas activities occurring on national wildlife refuges to protect the public's surface interests.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In July 2004, Interior said it would assess whether legal protections afforded other Department lands, such as National Park Service lands, would also be appropriate for the National Wildlife Refuge System. After this assessment, Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) would initiate action, as appropriate, involving additional authority, if deemed necessary. The target completion date was fiscal year 2004. In July 2006, FWS said that no actions had been taken on this recommendation. In June 2007, we reported that Interior told us of its belief that it does not require additional authority to manage oil and gas activities where the mineral rights have been reserved.

    Recommendation: As part of the process of improving the framework for managing and overseeing oil and gas activities on national wildlife refuges, the Secretary of the Interior and the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service should work with the Department of the Interior's Office of the Solicitor to determine FWS's existing authority to issue permits and set reasonable conditions regarding outstanding mineral rights, reporting the results of its determination to Congress.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In July 2004, Interior responded that in instances where Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has the authority to permit oil and gas activities, Interior will seek ways to strengthen the application of that authority consistent with state and federal law. Where FWS does not have the authority, Interior will explore options with applicable state and federal regulators. The target completion date was fiscal year 2004. In 2006, FWS said it is working with the DOI solicitor's office to address this issue, with a target completion date of FY 2007. In June 2007, we reported that FWS had not sought a formal opinion from Interior's Office of the Solicitor regarding the agency's authority to issue permits for outstanding mineral rights. FWS told us that it has consulted with the Office of the Solicitor regarding its authorities to issue permits for nonfederal oil and gas operations on refuge lands. And, according to FWS, the Office of the Solicitor has reviewed and concurred with the language in a draft FWS handbook on oil and gas management regarding FWS's authorities. However, FWS would not reveal to GAO the solicitor's position on this question until it releases the handbook on oil and gas management. We consider this recommendation to be not implemented until the Secretary of the Interior and FWS report the results of their determination to the Congress.

    Recommendation: To improve the framework for managing and overseeing oil and gas activities on national wildlife refuges, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service to clarify guidance and better oversee FWS's land acquisition process so that all hazardous substances and environmental problems and future cleanup costs are fully identified prior to acquisition and unexpected costs are avoided.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Interior responded that its policy on land acquisition was already clear and did not need clarification, but in July 2004 agreed to issue a Director's Order reaffirming the importance of conducting thorough environmental site assessments for all sites, including properties with oil and gas activities. The target completion date was fiscal year 2004. In July 2006, Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reported that no actions to implement this recommendation have been taken. In June 2007, we reported that FWS had decided to revise its policy on land acquisition rather than issue a Director's Order. FWS has assembled a team to work on revising its policy but cannot complete the task until several events occur. First, the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture must issue guidance for addressing new Environmental Protection Agency regulations on site assessment practices. Second, the Department of the Interior must revise its land acquisition policy. On the basis of estimated completion dates provided by Interior, we estimate that the revised FWS policy will not be available until at least calendar year 2008.

    Recommendation: To improve the framework for managing and overseeing oil and gas activities on national wildlife refuges, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that staff are adequately trained to oversee oil and gas activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2004, Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) agreed to develop a training course, Environmental Management of Oil and Gas Activities on National Wildlife Refuges, and to complete a handbook on the same subject. Target completion date is fiscal year 2007. In June 2007, we reported that FWS has developed a new training manual and conducted three training sessions in Texas, North Dakota, and Louisiana. The agency plans to offer one course per year starting in FY 2008. Agency personnel are strongly encouraged to attend the training.

    Recommendation: To improve the framework for managing and overseeing oil and gas activities on national wildlife refuges, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine what level of staffing is necessary to adequately oversee oil and gas operators and seek necessary funding to meet those needs, through appropriations, the authority to assess fees, or other means.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In 2004, Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) agreed to evaluate the staffing needs for running a national database on the effects of oil and gas activities, providing consistent policy and oversight, and providing training on managing oil and gas activities. Target completion date was fiscal year 2005. In July 2006, FWS reported that no actions to implement this recommendation have been taken. In June 2007, we reported that a team of FWS managers, working with the National Park Service, determined that a total of 45 positions are needed to oversee oil and gas activities for the national wildlife refuge system. However, under current budget circumstances, creating 45 positions is not feasible. According to FWS, if additional funding becomes available, it will create three new positions to form a national Mineral Resources Team. We have not seen evidence that FWS is taking steps to adequately staff the agency's management and oversight of oil and gas activities.

    Recommendation: To improve the framework for managing and overseeing oil and gas activities on national wildlife refuges, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service to collect and maintain better data on the nature and extent of oil and gas activities and the effects of these activities on refuge resources.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In 2004, Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) agreed to develop an action plan to identify the specific types of oil and gas information that FWS should gather and maintain and the associated data-gathering protocols and data management systems. The target completion date was fiscal year 2005. In July 2006, FWS reported that no actions have been taken to implement this recommendation. In June 2007, we reported that FWS had begun working with the Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate whether an oil and gas database used by EPA could be adapted to suit FWS's needs. FWS told GAO that it is a priority to complete the evaluation process in 2007. FWS is considering a pilot test of the database in Region 4. However, the agency has not identified a funding source for implementing the database, and it is not clear if and when it will be implemented throughout the refuge system.

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