Federal agency considers regulating oil, gas drilling on wildlife refuges

Web Manager’s note: Friends of the Wild Whoopers (FOTWW) is concerned about oil and gas drilling on Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. However it has been approved by the U.S. Congress and practiced on Aransas and many other national wildlife refuges, national forests and other federal lands for decades. The drilling is done under contract by private companies. Over the years the drilling practices have improved and companies have become more responsible. And the refuge personnel who monitor the drilling operations have improved in their knowledge and abilities to oversee the operations.  FOTWW will keep a watchful eye on the operations and assist the refuge personnel if needed.The following article by Sara Sneath, The Victoria Advocate provides an excellent description of the oil and gas drilling and the quality efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to assure quality operations.

Federal agency considers regulating oil, gas drilling on wildlife refuges
Rising above the treeline of oaks at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, a drilling rig begins activity. Although Hilcorp Energy Co. has mineral rights, it works closely with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Felipe Prieto on operations. Often, crews are asked not to use bright work lights that would disturb the wildlife in the area. Photo by Frank Tilley

Sara Sneath • Originally published August 2, 2014 at 10:45 p.m., updated August 3, 2014 at 8:34 a.m. The Victoria Advocate

AUSTWELL – From late October to mid-April, a valued natural resource – the only wild flock of endangered whooping cranes – can be found wintering on the Blackjack Peninsula.

But under the surface of the peninsula is yet another valuable resource: a mixture of oil and gas.

The man who balances the natural resources on and under the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is Felipe Prieto.

Federal agency considers regulating oil, gas drilling on wildlife refuges
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Felipe Prieto works with the oil company drilling at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The federal government purchased the land of the St. Charles ranch from San Antonio oilman Leroy G. Denman. The refuge later became known as the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, but it does not own the mineral rights to the land. Photo by Frank Tilley

Prieto is a wildlife biologist with more than 20 years of work on the refuge. As the liaison between the refuge and oil and gas operators, he also has studied the energy industry.

“You have to know enough to know when they’re feeding you bull,” he said. “And at times, you have to convince them why a precaution is necessary. Sometimes, you’re a biology 101 teacher.”

About once a year, Prieto and oil and gas managers from across Texas get together to talk about new technologies in mineral production.

“You have to be open and accepting of all that is going on in the world today because conservation requires that. You don’t exist in a little corner by yourself,” Prieto said.

About half of the nation’s 562 refuges have oil and gas development. As in the case of Aransas, the land for most refuges was purchased without the mineral rights, either because they were not for sale or prohibitively expensive.

Houston-based Hilcorp Energy Co., the sole owner of Aransas’ lease, has a good track record with the refuge. But many refuges are not so lucky, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Steve Guertin at a hearing this year on oil and gas.

At the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, 20 miles north of McAllen, cleaning up abandoned well sites and removing oil and gas equipment cost taxpayers about $1.2 million, he said.

Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the same rights as any other surface landowner, which have historically been at the mercy of the mineral rights owner.

On refuges, the noise, traffic, lights and possibility of pollution that accompany drilling operations are pitted against the goal of refuges – the conservation of wildlife and habitat.

Complicating the issue further is the fact that surface owner rights vary from state to state.

The wildlife service wants a predictable and consistent approach to regulating oil and gas development, Guertin said.

Productive relationship

The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge has seven active wells and more than 80 inactive wells, a reminder of the refuge’s long history of oil and gas development.

Before the wildlife service purchased the coastal area stretching from Austwell to Rockport in 1937, Conoco Inc., then called Continental Oil Co., owned the mineral rights. The rights are now owned by Hilcorp Energy Co., which began drilling on the refuge in 2010.

Because Hilcorp owns the entire 47,163-acre St. Charles Ranch lease, the refuge has only one company to work with. Hilcorp is one of the largest privately held energy companies in the U.S., operating across the Gulf Coast and in Alaska’s Cook Inlet on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

“Since we began our activities, we have coordinated in a positive and collaborative manner with the refuge’s staff and greatly appreciate their willingness to work cooperatively with us on this endeavor. Hilcorp has extensive experience conducting operations in sensitive areas,” Justin Furnace, corporate manager of Hilcorp external affairs, wrote in an email Thursday.

Having only one company to work with makes it easier for the refuge to keep tabs on drilling activity. Working with a bigger company with a namesake to look after is also beneficial. But perhaps the greatest advantage the refuge has is Prieto’s watchful eye.

“I’m looking for the fact that they are complying with everything we discussed. I want to be assured of that. If I find something different, I ask about it,” said Prieto, the oil and gas manager of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and Matagorda Island.

Plans for each of the seven wells Hilcorp has drilled on the refuge are outlined in a special use permit. The permits dictate the pad size of the well site – no bigger than 320-by-320-feet – that no lights may be used at night on tank batteries or completed wells and that a large mat be placed under the actual rig to protect the surface from spills.

“We’ve made pages of conditions. One of the conditions is that they maintain the roads,” Prieto said.

Drilling only occurs on the interior of the peninsula, away from the coast where the whooping cranes winter. The refuge also keeps oil and gas production off the 5,000 acres of public use area. And while whooping cranes are wintering in Aransas – from Oct. 15 through April 15 – no drilling is allowed.

To continue reading Sara Sneath’s article, please click here.


***** FOTWW’s mission is to help preserve and protect the Aransas/Wood Buffalo
population of wild whooping cranes and their habitat
. *****

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