Fish & Wildlife Service Hiding Influence of Refuge Driller

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 10, 2008  10:11 AM

CONTACT: Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)
Ceal Smith [Citizens for San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition] (719) 256-5780;
Travis Stills [Energy Minerals Law Center] (970) 375-9231;
Jeff Ruch [PEER] 202-265-7337

Fish & Wildlife Service Hiding Influence of Refuge Driller
Federal Court Asked to Force Government to Release Records

ALAMOSA, Colorado – July 10 – The federal government is refusing to release documents that could show whether a Canadian company that wants to drill in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge had inappropriate influence over a study of the project’s impacts.

Records of emails between Lexam Explorations Inc., a Canadian “wildcatter,” and a Department of Interior lawyer indicate that the company was repeatedly invited to review and comment on internal drafts of an environmental assessment that was being prepared to evaluate the impact of drilling on the San Luis Valley refuge. Other documents suggest the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relied on the oil and gas company to compile data on wildlife in the nation’s newest wildlife refuge.

The government has refused to release the edited drafts and other documents referred to in the emails. With the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expected to announce its decision clearing the way for Lexam to drill soon, a local water protection coalition has gone to court to compel the release of the information.

“Seven months ago, we asked the government to show us what they were sharing with Lexam,” said Ceal Smith, a consultant for the Citizens for San Luis Valley Water Protection Coalition. “This is supposed to be a public process. But the public is being systematically shut out while industry is invited to the decision-making table.”

The Freedom of Information suit, filed on behalf of the coalition by the Energy Minerals Law Center, claims the Fish and Wildlife Service has unlawfully shielded agency records from review and has neglected to conduct a thorough records search. It also claims the Interior Department Solicitor’s office failed to rule on the group’s appeal of the agency’s refusal to release additional documents by the statutory deadline. When asked, the Solicitor could not give any date by which it expects to rule on the appeal, leaving litigation as the only means of obtaining the missing documents.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the government may withhold certain internal documents from disclosure so long as officials haven’t shared those documents with a third party. However, the government’s own emails show a coordinated effort between the government attorney and Lexam’s attorney to control the scope and content of the study by allowing Lexam to edit and comment on internal drafts. Changes were made despite concerns raised by the contractor preparing the analysis and the Wildlife Refuge manager.

“As soon as the government shared the contents of the internal agency documents with Lexam, they became public records,” said Travis Stills, an attorney with the Energy Minerals Law Center. “The law does not permit them to pick and choose who gets to see this information and who doesn’t.”

“Political manipulation of science has become rife within the Bush administration, with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service producing a host of well-publicized examples,” said Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which named the Baca as one of the nation’s ten most imperiled national wildlife refuges because of the threat posed by Lexam’s intent to drill for natural gas. “What is occurring at the Baca appears to fit this pattern.”

The Environmental Protection Agency criticized the draft Environmental Assessment, prepared by consultants for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service but paid for by Lexam, as being inadequate. The EPA, National Park Service, Colorado Division of Wildlife, local government officials and thousands of citizens submitted letters calling upon the Fish and Wildlife service to conduct a more thorough analysis of impacts to water and air quality, wildlife, groundwater and effects to the community and its economy.

The 92,500-acre Baca NWR is next door to the Great Sand Dunes National Park both of which are set against the stunning backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Range. The refuge protects a regionally important aquifer and the largest concentration of wetlands in the Southwest. The federal government purchased the refuge for $33 million in 2000 to protect its “unique hydrological, biological, educational and recreational values.” Although normally included in Refuge protection, the mineral interests were not secured in the purchase agreement.

“We would like to see Fish and Wildlife Service give serious consideration to a minerals buyout as an alternative to drilling one of our nation’s most important refuges,” said Smith.

Because the refuge is so new, refuge managers have not had time to develop a management plan. As a result, the public is not yet allowed on the refuge. Very few surveys have been conducted to determine what and how refuge resources may be impacted by Lexam’s proposal to drill two 14,000-foot-deep exploratory wells. If the company finds oil or gas this could spur speculative development throughout the San Luis Valley. Until now the Valley has not been impacted by gas and oil development and is rated among the top 5 best regions in the nation for solar power generation.

Read the documents disclosed under Freedom of Information Act

See the PEER report on America’s Ten Most Imperiled Refuges

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