In a development sure to impact the oil and gas industry, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said state regulatory agencies should have a higher profile in protecting fish and wildlife, and asked his department to identify federal regulations that are more restrictive than those enacted by states.
Zinke's plans for the review were outlined in a two-page memo posted Tuesday by the nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Although the memo doesn't specifically mention the greater sage grouse or the lesser prairie chicken, it appears the scope of the review should encompass efforts to protect the ground-dwelling birds. The industry has been working with federal and state regulators for years to protect the birds' habitat from infrastructure such as well pads and pipelines.
"Each of us must recognize the fundamental role of the states in fish and wildlife management, especially where states have primary authority and responsibility, foster improved conservation of fish and wildlife, and encourage a good neighbor policy with the states," Zinke wrote in the memo to the heads of Interior's bureaus and offices, whom he asked to complete their review within 45 days.
Zinke asked the officials to provide Interior's deputy secretary with "a report containing detailed recommendations for the respective bureau or office to better align its regulations, policies and guidance with state provisions" within 90 days. The deputy secretary would then consult with state fish and wildlife agencies regarding the recommendations and deliver an implementation plan to Zinke within 180 days of the memo's issuance.
"[Interior] recognizes states as first-line authorities for fish and wildlife management and hereby expresses its commitment to defer to the states in this regard except as otherwise required by federal law," Zinke wrote.
The Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) and Western Energy Alliance (WEA) told NGI's Shale Daily that the memo is indeed applicable to the greater sage grouse and the lesser prairie chicken.
"States manage wildlife within their borders, and have many decades of experience doing so," WEA President Kathleen Sgamma said. "On the other hand, the federal government does not have that management expertise, nor the best data on wildlife. Despite that long history, the Obama administration, as with many other policies, attempted to upset that relationship with the states and centralize control of wildlife within the federal government. Actions on the sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken are indicative of that attitude.
"With the sage grouse, the Obama administration imposed one-size-fits all plans on the states, and Secretary Zinke is rewriting those plans to properly defer to the states. This memorandum is another step in restoring the proper balance with the states, which will ultimately result in on-the-ground conservation that better protects species."
IPAA's Dan Naatz, senior vice president for government relations, said the memo "makes sense.
"Any effort that can further clarify the management of wildlife and allow the states to have a voice and be heard is important, and it's important for our members," Naatz said. "We've seen this continued expansive overreach of the federal government into wildlife management, even beyond the Obama administration. Certainly, endangered species are another issue, but decisions along the lines of wildlife management -- we've seen the federal government over the years take a broader approach and a larger role in that management.
"We applaud the secretary for putting this out. It's important for the agencies to know stewardship of fish and wildlife really does require a partnership between the federal government and the states."
Last May, Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposed easing restrictions on oil and gas leasing in several western states within the greater sage grouse's habitat. In similar language to Tuesday's memo, the BLM at the time said the Trump administration wanted to "better align" its efforts at managing and conserving the bird's habitat with state regulatory agencies.
Interior and the Commerce Department jointly promulgated three rules last July designed to modify the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and remove some blanket protections. Both departments were to take public comments through Sept. 24. The oil and gas industry said it supported the rules, in part because they would benefit the industry's collaboration with state regulators to protect the lesser prairie chicken and other species to avoid an ESA listing.
But environmental groups expressed alarm at the memo. "This across-the-board abandonment of federal fish and wildlife safeguards is rooted in an ideological stance unsupported by any factual analysis," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.