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Oil Rules Tightened for Refuges; Activists Rally

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Fish and Wildlife Service proposed updating 50-year-old regulations for non-federal oil and gas development on National Wildlife Refuge System lands Friday.

The move follows on similar Department of Interior actions by the Bureau of Land Management in March and the National Park System in October, and coincides with increased pressure from activists during the Paris climate change talks.

Just prior to the BLM rule publication, DOI Secretary Sally Jewell announced her department's roll-out of "common-sense reforms that promote good government and help define the rules of the road for America's energy future on our public lands."

In her speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where she laid out her department's energy management priorities, Jewell quoted the National Petroleum Council as saying "the critical path to sustained and expanded resource development in North America includes effective regulation and a commitment of industry and regulators to continuous improvement in practices to eliminate or minimize environmental risk."

That sentiment did not forestall the oil industry from immediately filing a lawsuit against the BLM rule on the basis of the agency's lack of authority to regulate these industries on its lands. Consequently, both the NPS action and the current FWS proposal take pains to establish that authority.

Fish and Wildlife maintains Congress provided its statutory authority to regulate private oil and gas rights within refuge units through the enactment of the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, and the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act. The current rules, however, pre-date those acts, so today's proposal would revise the regulations to reflect that authority.

Other revisions would mandate that operators properly plug non-producing wells and contain spills, maintain and monitor equipment to reduce spill incidents, and require immediate reporting of spills and restoration of spill damages. The proposal also contains a permitting process, and holds operators financially liable for damages to refuge resources.

Private oil and gas wells exist on refuge lands because mineral rights were retained by private parties when the refuges were established. There are over 5,000 wells on 103 refuges and four Wetland Management Districts, of which 1,700 are active. Unconventional extraction methods (i.e. hydraulic fracturing, or fracking) could potentially vastly expand that number. There are an estimated 450 unplugged wells or unrestored sites that no longer have a known or solvent operator, the service said. The public will have to pick up that clean-up tab of over $20 million.

Energy development on refuge lands causes habitat loss and fragmentation, spreads invasive species, and contaminates water and soil, the agency said. Additionally, leaks, spills and open wells create safety hazards for visitors and refuge staff.

"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," service Director Dan Ashe said. "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. We owe it to this and future generations to meet our mission responsibility."

These measures are seen as too little, too late, according to climate change activists.

Coinciding with the Paris talks on climate change, activists have mounted a "Keep It in the Ground" campaign, referring to fossil fuel extraction on public lands. Just days before the FWS announced its proposal to tighten regulations for energy extraction on its refuges, activists mounted a rally outside the BLM's oil and gas lease sale in Reno, Nev., and, yesterday, the BLM delayed, at the last minute, a Washington D.C. scheduled fossil fuel drilling auction of nine parcels, where another rally was scheduled.

"If the administration can't handle the optics of auctioning fossil fuels while negotiating a climate deal in Paris, it shouldn't be auctioning off fossil fuels at all. It's time to end the federal fossil fuel leasing program to align public lands management with our climate goals and keep up to 450 billion tons of carbon pollution in the ground," Taylor McKinnon, of the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release jointly penned by Nevadans Against Fracking, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, Great Basin Climate Action Network, Great Basin Resource Watch, Center for Biological Diversity,, Rainforest Action Network, WildEarth Guardians, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, and Food and Water Watch. Comments on the FWS proposal and its draft environmental impact statement are due by Feb. 9, 2016.

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