WASHINGTON -- Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) wants to know who's really behind the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to consider new regulations on drilling in wildlife refuges.
Fish and Wildlife hasn't actually proposed any new regulations, but it accepted public comments earlier this year on how the agency might update the rules governing oil and gas development in lands and waters that are part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. The agency estimates that more than 200 refuges have oil and gas operations, with at least 1,600 active wells.
Young isn't happy about the possibility of new rules. "The whole, god-darned, blessed Fish and Wildlife department has got this idea again they're God, and Congress doesn't count," Young said at a Natural Resources subcommittee hearing on Tuesday. "This is America -- not a bunch of dictators dictating through agencies that are taking away the rights as individuals that Congress said they had."
The rules would pertain to areas where the surface is part of a federally managed refuge, but the subsurface mineral rights are privately held. Fish and Wildlife says it needs to update its regulations, which have not changed in more than 50 years. In that time, advances in technology, such as hydraulic fracturing, have made energy production profitable in many locations where it wasn't in the past, particularly in the Marcellus and Bakken shale regions.
The current regulations "do not fully address these challenges," the agency says, and are not in line with the rules for development on public lands controlled by other divisions of the Department of Interior, such as the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service. The Government Accountability Office also issued reports in 2003 and 2007 suggesting ways that the agency could "improve oversight and management" of development within refuges.
A number of House Republicans had questions for Steve Guertin, Fish and Wildlife's deputy director for policy, at Tuesday's hearing. None was more forceful than Young, who declared that the agency is "going against the will of the Congress and hurting the people we're supposed to be helping." He asked if the agency was giving in to pressure from environmental advocates.
"You're going to go hear from the Sierra Club," said Young. "You're going to hear from 'Save the Earth Club.' Are you going to listen and give credit to those that live there and were guaranteed by Congress the right to develop their resources for their social and economic mobility, or are you going to listen to a bunch of jackasses from societies that don't even live there?"
The congressman asked Guertin to name the person who came up with this "hare-brained idea," but cut him off before he could give a complete answer. Young then requested that Guertin provide all records of communication between the agency and interest groups.
"I want to know where this stinking thing arose from," Young said.
Guertin told legislators his agency is considering new regulations because inadequate oversight has already led to significant consequences. While there haven't been any full-blown spills within a refuge, there have been cases of habitat fragmentation and contamination from leaks in old wells and storage tanks.
The Fish and Wildlife Service received 47,454 public comments in response to its Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on potential rules for oil and gas development. That comment period closed in April, but Guertin said the agency will open a new comment period next week that will run another 30 days.