NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Energy Exploration in Wildlife Refuges

October 9, 2003

Environmentalists say drilling in wildlife refuges causes devastating damage while the energy industry says wildlife and drilling can thrive together. However, a new General Accounting Office's analysis of drilling in the lower 48 states concludes that environmental damage can be avoided.

Oil and gas exploration and drilling has or is taking place in hundreds of refuges, says the GAO:

  • One-fourth of the nation's more than 500 refuges have a history of oil and gas activity, in some cases dating back to the 1920s.
  • Wells on refuges are pumping nearly 24 million barrels of oil annually, more than 1 percent of the nation's total production.
  • The Service didn't even know how many oil and gas wells are operating on its refuges.
  • It does not keep records on oil spills and other damage, and has never assessed the cumulative effects of oil and gas operations on refuges.
  • Refuge managers often lack the knowledge, resources, training and commitment to regulate oil-drilling operations effectively.

However, the records at some refuges is better than others. At Hopper Mountain Wildlife Refuge in California, for example, 15 active wells have caused only two oil spills in the past 30 years; each was cleaned up quickly with no detectable effects on wildlife. In Louisiana, where two refuges are strictly monitored, oil and gas operators pay fees to finance the costs of monitoring compliance.

But at Anahuac Wildlife Refuge in Texas, 50 active wells have caused at least seven spills just since 1991, and one killed more than 180,000 fish.

Source: Editorial, "Alaskan drilling debate ignores failures in lower 48," USA Today, October 9, 2003; National Wildlife Refuges: Opportunities to Improve the Management and Oversight of Oil and Gas Activities on Federal Lands GAO-03-517, September 23, 2003, General Accounting Office, Washington, D.C.

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For GAO report


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