BLM policy to protect wildlife near rigs

The Bureau of Land Management is encouraging oil and gas companies to take measures including avoiding using drilling pits under a new national policy designed to better protect wildlife.

The policy was outlined in a memo issued in late December by the agency’s acting national director, Mike Pool, to its field office personnel.

It outlines new best management practices that field offices must consider and require where appropriate during permitting of drilling operations.

As part of the policy, the field offices must encourage the use of closed-loop drilling in lieu of open fluid pits. If pits are used, the agency may require that they be adequately fenced to keep out wildlife, and also covered with netting to keep birds from landing in the pits and being harmed. The BLM says it doesn’t approve of using flagging, strobe lights, metal reflectors or noisemakers as wildlife deterrents, and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found them to be ineffective.

Pits and centralized wastewater facilities kill an estimated 500,000 to 1 million birds annually, Fish and Wildlife estimates.

Some other practices field offices must consider requiring include installing wildlife escape ramps in open excavations such as trenches and unfenced pits, and screening exhaust stacks on production equipment to ward off birds and bats. The animals otherwise may perch or nest on them, which can lead to them becoming trapped, incinerated or killed from carbon monoxide poisoning.

BLM officials also will consider requiring marking of energy facility wire fences near breeding grounds and other sensitive habitat for imperiled birds such as the greater and Gunnison sage-grouse. These birds are sometimes killed by flying into such fences.

Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance industry group said the new memo “mostly addresses existing regulations and measures companies are already taking to protect wildlife, especially in Colorado and across the West, so I question the need for the new policy. One problem with the federal government dictating which practices to use is that local conditions vary, and measures effective in one area may not always be effective in another with different topography, weather, and other factors.”

Luke Schafer, Western Slope campaign director for Conservation Colorado, said the new BLM policy doesn’t mandate requirements, but still should result in a more consistent approach to wildlife protection.

“It’s an important way to make sure that we create a floor in terms of responsible development,” he said.

WPX Energy has switched to closed-loop drilling in response to public expectations that companies do so, and because it’s more practical than having to do things such as install and maintain bird netting, spokeswoman Susan Alvillar said.

Still, she said, it’s important to have the flexibility to use pits when circumstances require it, such as when a well taps into an excessively high pressure formation that results in more rapid recirculation of drilling fluids than a closed-loop system can handle.


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