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?

  • Sherrie Landon of the New Mexico office of the Bureau of Land Management inspects a well site that is being successfully revegetated.

    Paul Pennington
  • Richard Arnold of the New Mexico State University Agricultural Center checks out a stand of grass at a reclaimed gas well near Farmington. According to the BLM, reclamation means returning the land to "a condition equal to or closely approximating that which existed before the land was disturbed." But that does not mean returning the land to its wild, pre-disturbed state. Typically, the BLM directs companies to plant grasses and forbs, including many non-native species, to stabilize soils. It may take decades or longer for native grasses, sagebrush and juniper to re-establish themselves on the disturbed sites.

    NMSU photo by Jane Moorman
  • Well padsand roads dot the San Juan Basin of northern New Mexico

    Google Earth

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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."

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