Energy Boom Worries Hunters and Anglers

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, March 27, 2007 (ENS) The Bush administration's expansion of oil and gas drilling on Western public lands is having adverse impacts on fish and wildlife, hunting and fishing advocates told the House Resources Committee today.

Fish and wildlife are treated as an "impediment" to energy development by federal agencies and industry groups, said Rollin Sparrowe, a board member of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

The complaints by hunting and fishing interests, including representatives of two union groups, came in the wake of a series of regulatory efforts by the Bush administration to streamline the environmental review and approval of drilling permits for federal lands.

Industry groups have long argued for the revisions to reduce the red-tape and litigation that can delay drilling, but critics contend the changes have gone too far and elevated oil and gas drilling above all other interests.

The government is involved in a "shotgun approach to leasing," Sparrowe told the committee, and is failing to adequately study the impacts to fish and wildlife before approving permits for drilling and putting few constraints on the scope and pace of development.

grouse

Conservationists contend the decision not to list the greater sagegrouse on the endangered species list was due to pressure from the energy industry, which feared impacts of having tighter protections on the bird's habitat. (Photo courtesy FWS)

"Many promises about seeking balanced development have been made, including by the President, but what has happened on the ground has not been balanced," said Sparrowe, a former director of wildlife research for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Concern about increased pressures to increase drilling prompted a call last month the Western Governors Association for Congress to revoke provisions of the 2005 energy bill that eased environmental review of some oil and gas development in wildlife habitats.

Westerners understand the "need for appropriate, well planned and reasonable development of the region's energy resources," said Dan Gibbs, a Democratic state representative from Colorado. "However oil and gas drilling also has the potential to bring lasting and needless damage to the habitat fish and wildlife need to survive it is time wildlife interests had a seat at the table when decisions are made about energy development

Gibbs has introduced legislation in Colorado to require more cooperation between state agencies to protect wildlife from oil and gas drilling and he urged Congress to follow suit.

The bill has gained the support of more than 50 hunting, fishing and conservation groups as well as the Colorado state oil and gas association and the state's petroleum association.

That broad support demonstrates "the sense of urgency we all feel about this problem," Gibbs told the panel. "We need you, our federal legislators to act and introduce federal legislation that would complement what we are trying to do in Colorado."

Republicans on the committee rejected that suggestion and questioned the extent of the conflict between energy development and the interests of hunters and anglers.

Cooperation between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which issues drilling permits, and federal wildlife authorities is "already required under federal law," said Representative Steven Pearce said.

yellowstone

Colorado state lawmaker Dan Gibbs called on Congress to pass legislation to mitigate conflicts between energy developmenta and wildlife. (Photo courtesy Representative Gibbs)

"Less than 5 percent of BLM land is used for oil and gas production," Pearce added. "We are being led to believe the sky is falling when it is actually a very small area that is being dealt with."

But Steve Williams, who served as the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 2002-2005, called the manner in which energy development is being conducted "troubling."

Federal and state agencies are underfunded, understaffed and ill-equipped to handle the mandate for more drilling, according to Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute.

States in particular are in a predicament, Williams said, and in need of additional federal funding to help balance energy development with fish and wildlife interests.

"It is quite a paradox, state agencies must use their funds to conserve species under their authority that occur on federal lands," said Williams, who also called for greater coordination between federal and state authorities.

"Federal agencies must involve their counterparts," Williams said, "and not just to satisfy process and procedure."

Williams urged greater accountability and transparency of the oil and gas permitting process, as well as for the identification of certain unique and special places that are too valuable for any development.

The lone industry representative who testified at the hearing said new technologies make energy development on public lands compatible with hunting and fishing.

deer

Muledeer are a popular target for hunters in the West - hunting and fishing brings billions of dollars to Western states every year. (Photo courtesy FWS)

The industry is spending some $1 billion to mitigate wildlife and environmental concerns at Wyoming's Pinedale gas field alone, Charles Greenhawt, government affairs manager for Questar Corporation told the committee.

This mitigation will leave 92 percent of the area unaffected, he said, "while ultimately supplying enough domestic natural gas to supply ten million U.S. households for over 30 years."

Greenhawt also noted that natural gas operations have far less impact than nature on wildlife, suggesting that recent concerns are linked more to drought than to increased oil and gas drilling.

But Sparrowe said the mitigation efforts at Pinedale, the nation's second-largest gas field, illustrate the problem, not the solution. Winter range for muledeer in the area has declined nearly 50 percent, he said, and the affected herd has seen a 27 percent decline in reproductive success - an impact that has affected other herds in the state.

"This has occurred with less than 500 wells and approximately 5,000 acres of disturbance," Sparrowe said. "A proposed project being considered would add over 4,000 wells and 12,000 acres of new surface disturbance and set aside wildlife protections for year-round drilling."

The concern is "not just Pinedale," Sparrowe added.

Current BLM plans could allow more than 118,000 oil and gas wells on federal land in the Rocky Mountains, affecting more than 1 million acres.

"Vast areas of important habitat for fish and wildlife have been, and continue to be leased without proper predictions on how development will take place," Sparrowe told the committee.

Representative Don Young, an Alaska Republican, said critics were misguided, calling the issue "a stalking horse to stop the development of energy."

"This is not about stopping energy production," Williams responded. "Everyone here has stated that."