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Know the West

Who’ll clean up when the party’s over?

Land managers and industry are stepping up efforts to reclaim public lands scraped and drilled for oil and gas. Is it too little, too late?


In the shadow of a sandstone outcrop a few miles east of this northwestern New Mexico outpost, a life-and-death struggle is playing out in the hard desert soil.

A few feet from a natural gas well known as Riddle #8S, delicate shoots of alabaster rice grass spring up from a swath of sandy loam. To the casual observer it's just another scraggly patch of bleached-out grass, but to Sherrie Landon, it's a biological triumph.

"This looks good," says Landon, a reclamation specialist with the Bureau of Land Management's Farmington, N.M., field office. "The vegetation is coming back very well."

The same can't be said for the dirt around a nearby older well, Riddle WH 3C. Here, only 50 yards away, the seeds didn't take. The lifeless, eroding hillside stands as a cruel reminder of the challenge of growing anything in the desert.

"Our level of success when it comes to re-vegetating just has to vary," says Landon, a solidly built blonde who likes to spend her weekends hunting oryx, an exotic African antelope introduced to New Mexico. "It's very challenging."

The San Juan Basin is the nation's second-largest natural gas basin. Unfortunately, the West's most productive fossil fuel basins -- the San Juan, the Powder River on the Wyoming/Montana border, Colorado's Piceance and southeastern New Mexico's Permian -- share another distinction: They are some of the harshest and most biologically stubborn environments to reclaim after drilling. If it doesn't rain, or if it rains at the wrong time, a season of work can be wasted.

Part of the challenge of healing this land is strictly biological. But another part is political and financial. As anyone who has flown over or driven through a natural gas hotspot can attest, this boom -- with its expanding networks of roads, well pads, waste ponds and pipeline corridors -- is leaving immense and ever-growing scars on the landscape. It will take as much energy and commitment to erase them as it took to create them. So far, however, reclamation has remained on the back burner, with the BLM, the industry, and even environmentalists putting most of their focus on the drilling boom itself.

But that may be starting to change. In 2005, Congress passed the National Energy Policy Act, which authorized new resources for the BLM to expedite reclamation efforts in energy hotspots. Since then, Landon and her five-member reclamation team have been on the ground ensuring that the industry cleans up as it develops new wells. To a lesser extent, they also oversee the reclamation of older well sites. Landon's team visits hundreds of sites each year -- first to talk over the reclamation plan with the gas company, then to check on the progress of the project, which is almost always carried out and paid for by the companies themselves.

Six other BLM "pilot" reclamation teams have formed under the new law, based in Carlsbad, N.M., Vernal, Utah, Glenwood Springs, Colo., Rawlins, Wyo., Buffalo, Wyo., and Miles City, Mont. Agency officials say the federal government's strengthened commitment to reclamation has fostered a cooperative new attitude in the energy industry. Reclamation has gone from an often-neglected afterthought to part of the standard way of doing business.

"One day these fields will have produced everything they can, and what will be there is the land and the wildlife," says Tony Herrell, deputy director of BLM's New Mexico state office. "So we need to return them to where they were before."

But successfully reclaiming oil and gas fields in the West will take a whole lot more money and personnel than are currently deployed. One observer likens the BLM's efforts to a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. If the federal government wants to avoid the kind of scars that still linger from long-ago mining and logging, it will have to scale up its work, and do so in a hurry.

One reason for skepticism is that the BLM, which oversees the development of all federally owned minerals on both public and private lands, has an abysmal track record. Across the West, some 109,000 abandoned oil and gas wells, developed before modern environmental laws, languish like open wounds, surrounded by bare, eroding well pads, contaminated soil and rutted roads.

The BLM estimates that just 15,472 -- less than 15 percent -- of these wells have been reclaimed. In the San Juan Basin alone, the agency has reclaimed only 103 of about 2,000 abandoned wells. And short of a large infusion of new cash and personnel, most of the abandoned wells will continue to suffer from neglect, says Tom Lahti, a landscape architect with the BLM's Wyoming state office.

"It's a workload that's out there that we need to do, but the priority sometimes isn't there to bring everything up to speed with our current requirements," says Lahti. And when the agency does tackle older, messier fields, "we have to work a little harder, or we may have to lessen our standards." He adds, "I'm not saying I agree with that, but that's what happens."

Even as the BLM struggles to clean up the past, it is racing headlong into the future. Currently, the BLM manages approximately 80,000 active wells on public lands in the West -- about 30,000 in the San Juan alone. In the next 15 to 20 years, the agency expects to permit an additional 126,000 wells, 10,000 of them in the San Juan Basin. The Wilderness Society estimates that more than a million acres will be graded, drilled or otherwise disturbed by new oil and gas development over the next two decades. When all of these wells run dry -- the average well has a lifespan of 30 years -- federal managers will have a truly massive reclamation job on their hands.

Yet BLM officials and industry leaders are confident that they can get on top of the current boom. They point to the agency's newly minted set of reclamation standards. Known as the "Gold Book," it directs companies to submit a plan outlining how they will reclaim the land, and to post bonds in the event of future bankruptcy. It emphasizes "ecosystem restoration" and includes a list of requirements, such as re-vegetating graded areas with native plants and re-contouring well pads. It also, for the first time, includes guidelines for reclaiming areas while a well is still active. Such "interim" reclamation includes shrinking the well's footprint from up to three acres to about one acre or less after drilling equipment is removed, before the well enters the production phase.

Most new permits have the new standards, says Bill Gewecke, a senior petroleum engineer for inspection and enforcement at BLM headquarters in Washington, D.C., although the decision to include them still rests with local BLM managers. But because most permits did not have these standards until a few years ago, the BLM has little regulatory authority to force industry to reclaim tens of thousands of already active wells to the new, higher standards.

Chris Hanson, manager of BLM's Buffalo, Wyo., field office, has required interim reclamation for every new well since 2003, but he says companies didn't start taking the directive seriously until 2005, when funding received under the pilot program allowed him to hire four new reclamation specialists. Last year, 18 percent of their inspections found violations of reclamation requirements, down from 57 percent in 2005.

The industry has come to accept the new way of doing things, says Stephanie Tomkinson, a biologist with Questar, an energy company with thousands of wells in production across the Interior West, particularly in Wyoming. These days, it's not unusual for an energy company to have two or three biologists or ecologists on staff, she says.

"Questar is not just a bunch of fat, whisky-drinking, cigar-smoking guys with their feet up on their desk," she said, during a BLM fluid minerals conference in Albuquerque, N.M., in May. "We interact with wildlife, we are ranchers, and we are hunters. That's why it's so important for us to focus on multiple use."

Roger Alexander of the BLM's Wyo-ming state office says there's also a strong financial incentive for industry to keep disturbance to a minimum. "It may cost more up front," he says, "but it saves them money down the road on reclamation."

Cooperative companies also reap a big PR benefit. Both the companies and the BLM are aware that the public wants its land taken care of, says Dave Evans, associate field manager for the agency's Carlsbad office. "The companies know they're under the microscope, like we are, and they know it's to their advantage to be seen in a better light."

In the San Juan Basin, Landon says that the industry has only recently begun to accept reclamation. "It took a long time to get the old oilfield mentality of ‘push the dirt' changed," says Landon. But about two years ago, "they realized we were going to hold them to these standards, and now it's a successful effort."

Not everyone believes that the energy industry has turned over a new leaf. The major players may be doing some good reclamation, but most wells are drilled by small operators, and "the majority are doing a very shoddy job," says Jim Kuipers, a former mining engineer who now works as a consultant for environmental groups.

"They're not putting the land back together -- they're putting a Band-Aid on it," says Kuipers, who wrote a 2005 report for the Western Organization of Resources Councils on reclamation problems in the oil and gas industry.

BLM officials agree that small operators are a problem. "They're trying to make a dollar the best they can, they're on a tighter budget, so there's not much benefit for them (to reclaim the land)," says BLM's Bill Gewecke. "With the larger companies, they have a larger profile, and they can say, ‘Look, we're being good stewards of the land.'"

The feds are falling down on enforcement, too. A 2005 Government Accountability Office report found that in 2004, the Buffalo, Wyo., field office achieved just 27 percent of its inspection goals. Seven out of the eight BLM field offices GAO staff visited had a backlog of reclamation inspections, and all eight offices had conducted only half of the inspections planned for the previous six years.

"Why should oil and gas companies step up and be responsible when BLM doesn't enforce it?" asks rancher and activist Tweeti Blancett, who has fought energy companies on her property in the San Juan Basin for years.

Don Likwartz, the oil and gas supervisor for the state of Wyoming, says that even when local BLM officials want to increase enforcement of reclamation guidelines, their bosses in Washington, D.C., have other priorities.

"In some recent years, with the pressure on to get more drilling permits issued, BLM has used those (inspection) people to issue permits instead of inspect sites," he says.

Gewecke acknowledges that reclamation is not the first priority. The BLM has its hands full just trying to make sure that all those new wells are drilled according to agency standards, and that companies pay the royalties they owe, which has been a major problem in recent years. The new pilot project is a good start, but it's only a handful of offices. The agency's reclamation efforts are still hamstrung by a lack of resources.
"We've been trying to get more funding for all the offices, but since it's an appropriation, it's hit or miss," he says. This year's budget saw only a slight increase in enforcement funding -- $30 million, compared to $28 million last year.

That's just not enough, Gewecke says. "To do what we feel we should be doing, it should be higher," he says, although he declines to specify how much money he thinks is necessary.

"We've always had an emphasis on reclamation, but it's just one of the things that gets pushed down the priority list pretty quickly when it comes to funding," he says. "We try to keep it going the best we can."
The money set aside to clean up abandoned well sites is also less than adequate much of the time. According to the Gold Book, companies are required to post a bond, or damage deposit, of at least $10,000 to cover reclamation costs on a lease in the event the company goes bankrupt or otherwise fails to pay for the work. But it costs around twice that much -- about $20,000 on average -- to actually reclaim a well, and there can be more than one well on the same lease.

The bonding system works like this: A company with leases throughout a particular state has to post a minimum $25,000 bond, and a company that operates nationwide posts at least a $150,000 bond, which covers all of its wells. How much a company's bond is depends on a variety of factors, including how many wells it has and where it operates. In Colorado, EnCana Oil and Gas has 3,652 wells, but its statewide bond is $235,000, which amounts to about $64 a well, according to Jim Kuipers. His 2005 study found that in five case studies, bonds fell short every time, to the tune of $120,000 to $6.8 million.

In one example of bonding gone wrong, Emerald Restoration and Production Company went bankrupt in 2001, leaving the Wyoming BLM holding the bag for $3.9 million in reclamation costs for 120 wells. The agency ended up suing the company. But Tom Lahti says that case was a rarity; most companies, he says, reclaim their wells without incident.

Companies these days rarely default on a bond because it's bad for business, says Tony Herrell, deputy director of BLM's New Mexico state office. "A reputable company is not going to default, because it would put them out of business," he says. "They would not be able to operate anywhere if they defaulted."

Both the shortcomings and strengths of the reclamation process are on display during an afternoon's drive around the San Juan Basin. Conoco-Phillips is the area's largest operator, with 10,000 active wells and leases covering half the acreage in the basin. The company is eager to display its leaner, greener approach. On a hill overlooking the San Juan Valley, reclamation specialist Virgil Chavez surveys a recent reclamation project on an active gas well. A burgeoning swath of blue grama grass covers the site of a former half-acre waste pit, looking for all the world like a hair transplant. When this well was drilled and the waste pit dug, the company saved the top 6 inches of soil, which contains all the nutrients that the plants need to grow. Once the pit was filled in, the workers put it back on top.

"Basically, everything we look at is a snapshot -- a short-term disturbance," Chavez says.

Along the transplant's edge runs a half-moon of tire tracks, cutting through the newly planted grass. John Zent, Conoco-Phillips' project development manager, says those were left by trucks circling too wide when leaving the well. "That's the kind of thing we're trying to avoid," he says.

Shirley McNall is a self-proclaimed "freelance activist" in Aztec, N.M., who has one well on her property but successfully fought off another one, which now stands on BLM land across the road. She commends Conoco-Phillips for its environmental work, but notes that the company, which acquired Burlington Resources last year, faces a big challenge fixing up all its newly acquired wells. Many of them have problems, she says, ranging from erosion to leakage.

An afternoon's worth of wandering through the sun-bleached basin, from private property on Crouch Mesa to federal land near Aztec, brings on a case of the reclamation blues. At least five well sites show no signs of recent TLC -- just two- to three-acre tracts of barren earth, punctuated by juniper-green wellheads, storage tanks and compressors. The reclamation revolution isn't over yet, it seems.

Zent acknowledges that the older wells are "a challenge." But he says that the company, encouraged by the BLM's San Juan Basin reclamation team, is dealing with them even as it drills new wells nearby, taking care of reclamation for both at the same time.

Down in New Mexico's pancake-flat Permian Basin, not far from the Texas border, reclamation is also getting more respect. Local operators -- the Carlsbad, N.M., phone book lists 87 oil and gas-related companies, including 10 oil producers, four oil and gas exploration and development companies, and 31 oilfield service contractors -- have come around to the idea, thanks in large part to a slow, delicate courtship, according to Jim Stovall, manager of the Carlsbad Field Office.

"I think it's the relationships we've built and the change of attitude, and realizing the need to look down the road," Stovall says. "There are some wonderful resources out there, and we need to make sure they're taken care of. We've gotta be just as high or higher on the environmental end as we are on the development side of things."

Still, Stovall, whose office processes about 750 drilling applications each year, acknowledges the challenge of juggling energy development with competing mandates to protect biodiversity and scenic values. The impacts of gas development extend far beyond the well pads themselves, he notes.

"We may reclaim x number of acres, but fragmentation affects many more acres of habitat" for the lesser prairie chicken, sand dune lizard and other species, says Stovall. "It's much more than just those acres disturbed."

That's exactly why the BLM should avoid leasing and developing intact wildlands, says Liz Thomas of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "I don't think you can put wildlife habitat back," she says. "Once you've lost a species, that's it. The habitat fragments (due to roads and wells) and it takes decades, sometimes hundreds of years, to get flora and fauna to come back."

Other critics argue that the BLM needs to demonstrate that it's able to heal industrialized lands before it considers new development. "I don't think we've seen enough successful interim and final reclamation that would justify using it as a wide-scale management approach," says Nada Culver of The Wilderness Society's Rocky Mountain regional office in Denver.

But the BLM is increasingly using the promise of reclamation to justify opening up ecologically sensitive areas. Last May, BLM National Director Jim Caswell said that his agency and the industry now have the means to carefully develop millions of additional acres of energy-rich public lands currently off-limits for environmental reasons. "With the means to make energy development a temporary use of the land, we don't have to choose between energy security and healthy lands," he said.

As an example, BLM officials point to plans for energy development on western Colorado's Roan Plateau. Although environmentalists criticize the agency's plan for allowing drilling on the top of the plateau, it does limit surface disturbance to 350 acres at any one time. That effectively forces operators to reclaim parts of well pads while they're still active before moving on to the next area. The BLM has adopted a similar approach for southern New Mexico's Otero Mesa, home of one of the few remaining intact expanses of Chihuahuan grasslands.

"It creates a big incentive for the operator to keep that footprint as much to a minimum as they can," says David Boyd of BLM's northwestern Colorado office in Glenwood Springs.

"Obviously that's a better approach than just opening an area, so I don't want to say don't try that," says Culver. "But we should try it in places where it makes sense and see what happens, not in a place where there's risk of irreversible destruction."

Jim Kuipers believes the oil and gas industry needs the same kind of standardized, mandatory reclamation requirements as the mining industry, which has a legal obligation to put the land back together under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. But BLM officials say new laws aren't likely -- or necessary.

"I don't think reclamation has really gotten out of hand," says the BLM's Bill Gewecke. "It's one of those things where we have a tendency at times to put it down at a lower priority or have in the past, but we're trying to get it to where we're doing a better job."

In Wyoming, the BLM's Tom Lahti has put together statewide reclamation standards that go further than the ones in the Gold Book. They are intended to ensure that all operators on federal lands re-contour the site after production ends, enhance the soil, re-establish "self-perpetuating" plant communities, keep invasive plants from taking hold and monitor the site to make sure everything is going according to plan.

Lahti notes that Wyoming's standards do not specify the methods to be used, because those can vary from place-to-place depending on site conditions; they simply mandate the end results. But Lahti stops short of predicting that this approach to reclamation will gain favor West-wide. "People are afraid to cross boundary lines," he says. "I'd probably say that this won't be the norm, but I think there's a benefit to doing it agency-wide."

Lahti believes the best way to make sure reclamation gets done is through the planning process. Many field offices are in the midst of revising their management plans, which are updated every 15 years or so. If strict standards are incorporated into these plans, then every operator will have a legal obligation to abide by them. "I think there's an opportunity there."

But the land will likely still be recovering long after those plans come up for revision again -- and long after all the natural gas has been pumped out. Aesthetics can be improved within a growing season or two, but re-creating a healthy landscape can take a lifetime -- or several lifetimes. "To get to the point where the land will evolve toward that pre-disturbance condition, it will take centuries," Lahti says. "It's that human mark on the landscape."

Out here on the wine- and alabaster-colored mesas of the San Juan Basin, Sherrie Landon has been coaxing grass to grow under the unforgiving New Mexico sun for six and a half years now, determined to make that mark a little less visible. "We fight a hard battle here," she says. "But we will win." 

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.