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 5

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.

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