Coalition challenges data in US agencies’ sage grouse reports
E&P projects in Western US may face significant delays, added costs due to measures based on poor science, group says
By Kelli Ainsworth, Editorial Coordinator
A coalition group, including IADC, is challenging plans by several US federal agencies that could significantly delay E&P projects in the Western US and Canada, affecting basins such as Green River, Powder River and Uinta. Planned actions are associated with the greater sage grouse – a bird that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) could add to the endangered species list by September.
On 18 March, the coalition group filed a Data Quality Act (DQA) challenge with the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the FWS and the US Geological Survey (USGS). It asserts that those agencies are using bad data and poor research methodology to make decisions associated with sage grouse protection that will have significant and widespread economic impact in the Western US. The BLM, for example, is already moving forward with revising resource management plans to protect leks, or sage grouse breeding areas.
“They’re on a regulatory path,” Kathleen Sgamma, VP of Government and Public Affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, said. “They’re purposefully selecting science that supports what they’re trying to do.” Earlier this year, IADC joined with the Western Energy Alliance – an organization representing more than 450 stakeholder companies – to form the coalition and file the DQA challenge.
The US Congress created the DQA in 2000 to ensure that data disseminated and used by federal agencies is accurate, high quality and unbiased. The coalition used the DQA to file a challenge arguing that the three reports commissioned and being used by the federal agencies are biased and do not meet scientific standards. The challenge also provides additional research data in an attempt to help the agencies form a more comprehensive picture of challenges associated with sage grouse protection.
The BLM is currently updating 98 resource management plans used in sage grouse territory, based on the data and recommendations presented in three reports that were issued between 2011 and 2013 by the BLM, the FWS and the USGS. Revised plans would require buffer zones around the hundreds of leks in the western portions of the US. These buffer zones would range from 0.6 miles of no surface occupancy to 4 miles of controlled surface occupancy around each lek. This would greatly limit when and where companies can drill for oil and gas. “During certain times of the year, you cannot operate within four miles of a lek, so that severely curtails operations,” Ms Sgamma said.
New BLM regulations would also limit surface disturbance from commercial activities and human development to 3% in sage grouse areas. “We believe the 3% cap is particularly onerous,” Ms Sgamma said. As a result of this cap, if one company’s activities already meet or approach the 3% surface disturbance limit, another company may be prevented from operating in the same area at the same time.
These actions could be finalized as early as this summer, affecting 59 million acres of public land in the US. Beyond oil and gas, the mining and ranching industries are also likely to be impacted. Nineteen county governments from Utah, Montana, Nevada and Colorado have joined the coalition to challenge the federal agencies’ data. Many of these counties, Ms Sgamma said, contain vast amounts of public land. In some counties, as much as 85% of land is public. Therefore, these regulations would have a significant impact on their economies. “They’re very dependent on economic activity in federal land,” she said. “When the federal government shuts down that economic activity, their counties and communities suffer.”
According to a study commissioned by the Western Energy Alliance, the revised BLM resource plans would result in an estimated $5 billion of annual economic impact to the oil and gas, mining and ranching industries. Up to 31,000 jobs would be affected. The alliance is currently working on a separate analysis of the economic consequences of an endangered species listing for the greater sage grouse.
Through the DQA challenge, the coalition hopes to prompt the federal agencies to reexamine the science around sage grouse populations. In preparation for filing the challenge, the group hired wildlife biologists from Wildlife Sciences International to review the reports that the government agencies were using. The scientists identified errors and conflicts of interest in the reports. For example, those reports were written by the same scientists who conducted the independent studies the reports frequently cite. “If you look at these supposedly independent studies, they were funded by the agencies, and they were peer-reviewed by the same people who are developing the agency reports,” she said.
The coalition’s challenge also points to factors other than human activity that have impacted the sage grouse population, which has declined by 40% since the 1970s. The BLM attributes that decline to human activity damaging the sage grouse’s habitat. However, the DQA challenge highlights studies showing that the population of ravens, which prey on the greater sage grouse, increased elevenfold from 1985-2009. “We’re not just criticizing their science,” Ms Sgamma said. “We’re offering all these different studies that should be considered as they’re putting together these restrictions, which will have severe economic impacts across the west, not only for the oil and gas industry, but for many others.”
The agencies have 60 to 90 days to respond to the challenge. Even if it does not prompt the agencies to reconsider their actions, the challenge puts information on record that the coalition could rely on if it decides to pursue legal challenges against regulations or an endangered species listing for the sage grouse in the future.