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
 

Page 3

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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!