Does the Forest Sector Have Something to Teach the Oil and Gas Industry?

I think it’s interesting to compare and contrast how we think about different kinds of resources use. There are many oil and gas wells on public lands, as well, so this is a bit out of our normal sphere but relevant to this blog.

I think when people in environmental groups focus on “don’t do it”, when the action continues to happen, there is less emphasis on “doing practices better and reducing the environmental impact.” Or perhaps because environmental lawyers are very active in these groups, and don’t feel as comfortable with the nitty-gritty of operations?

Back when I worked for the Forest Service, I was in discussions with environmental folks in the Administration (not this one) about potentially requiring oil and gas operators who work on public land to have an independently audited EMS. When I look back I wonder if the conversation might be different today if that had happened.

Now I know that many readers hate EMS the way the Forest Service did it. And it gets mixed up with sustainable forest certification..which is about being audited to external standards. But when we were exploring the use of EMS back then, we did find a few things about some gas and others wells and got them fixed, and looked at how to systematically improve things so that the problem didn’t happen again.

The idea that people figure out where their environmental impacts are, and use continuous improvement practices to reduce the environmental effects, and the work is watched by independent folks (and funded by the companies themselves, not the taxpayers) .. seem like that could help build and share knowledge.

It would be a good story to tell, it seems to me, how they are working to make their operations safer to workers and the environment and reduce environmental impacts. Maybe they are, and that’s not being covered in the press(??).

Here is an article from the Denver Post on the State of Colorado grappling with the increase in oil and gas operations. It seems to me like they could learn something from the experience of state and others regulating forest practices.

State enforcers also are trying to shore up protection for wildlife habitat.

A Colorado Parks and Wildlife team is updating maps of sensitive habitat where drillers must consult with biologists. Proposed changes, if approved, would lead to 2 percent net increase in areas where surface activities are restricted and a 10 percent net increase in designated sensitive habitat.

“In some cases, new wells will be subject to consultation” with state biologists, Lepore said. “In others, this requirement may no longer apply.”

The overall number of state inspectors is expected to increase to keep pace with the expanding oil and gas operations.

COGCC enforcement currently has 15 inspectors who are charged with monitoring operations at about 51,000 active wells statewide, in addition to oversight of waste disposal and cleanup at depleted drilling sites.

Those inspectors physically visited 6,179 industry sites this year and conducted inspections of 10,678 wells, state data show, confirmed by Lepore. COGCC supervisors this month are interviewing candidates for six new positions. They plan to hire another six by early 2014, which would bring the total to 27.

“More inspectors on staff,” Lepore said, “will mean that more inspections are conducted.”

Three inspectors are to be equipped with infra-red cameras to detect toxic leaks. One camera in use is borrowed from the Regional Air Quality Council. COGCC officials recently purchased two more. While the cameras cannot measure how much has leaked, they can help pinpoint the source.

Infra-red cameras, Lepore said, “are another tool to promote best practices and to reduce impacts.”

16 Comments

  1. Maybe I’m way out in left field… I don’t know. But when you look at the different activities (cutting down trees with a chainsaw and loading them on a truck for a week or two) or (drilling into the ground and pumping for 10-20 years with associated pipelines, and other equipment and infrastructure).. both have roads associated with them, or run on existing roads.. the attention paid to environmental care seems out of proportion. But that could be simply a sign of my own ignorance.

    An EMS is not a document, it is a management system designed to continuously improve environmental management. It is standardized by the ISO internationally. You identify the environmental hazards that your business has and develop ways of reducing them in a systematic way (prevention rather than fixing after the fact). You check on how you are doing and people report when they see things going wrong. It is a learning cycle. The whole process can be checked by independent auditors. So anyone can have an EMS and determine their own goals and objectives…and be independently audited to that.

    Here is a ppt from one for the BLM in New Mexico that has two “significant aspects” (serious things to work on) dealing with the O&G business (Plugging and Abandonment of Inactive Oil and Gas Wells Spill Response at Oil and Gas Wells) that also explains the concepts fairly well.

    One thing about it is in a federal agency it can create a tension… continual improvement means you admit mistakes and fix them through documentation. But generating all that documentation tends to be fodder for FOIAs and lawsuits. It is a conundrum. Not entirely different from safety and fires and near misses and lawsuits.

    The FS tried that and ran into lots of trouble. We probably all have our (strongly held) points of view about why. I think it was too much discipline and especially paperwork too soon, and that the FS could have developed an EMS Lite that would have been highly beneficial. In my opinion, O&G operations and recreation would have benefited from a disciplined, systematic approach, in addition to timber harvests, fuel treatments and grazing.

    Instead of developing your own standards, which the FS was thinking of doing at the time, organizations in the Forestry world can also certify to FSC, SFI CSA or other organizations. Here’s a link to CSA. Their approach seems very sensible to me (for trees).

    O&G folks could develop an national industry standard like the Canadians did with CSA. But I think with so much energy (so to speak ;)) focused on renewables, it makes folks less inclined to focus on improving fossil fuels practices.. say environmental groups, who would normally be working on this. Because litigation is not an effective tool on private lands.. more posts on that later.

    Again this kind of pressure could be happening but I am not seeing it publicly. People who are working on this could send me emails to let me know if I am incorrect.

    Anyway, back to forests. Here’s an example of an ISO 14001 (EMS) and CSA audit for a forest in Alberta. You can tell that it is much more structured and focused than many internal review processes. I think that having more structure might improve situations in which partners and the FS agree to do something but it doesn’t happen the way they agreed (major trust loss I have heard from partners). By jointly reviewing what went wrong and fixing the system, the trust could be rebuilt, at least on that unit. Of course that wouldn’t require an entire EMS.

  2. Sharon

    I have been a strong advocate for CPI (Continuous Process Improvement) everywhere that I have worked (woods, office, and mills). The “get it right the first time” philosophy engenders CPI which in turn shortens the learning curve and is a natural outgrowth of the scientific method / root cause analysis or whatever you want to call it. Your EMS (ISO 14001) looks like an Executive Summary from an SFI independent audit.

    The tragedy of the whole environmental movement as heavily influenced by the NSO is that it has ignored CPI as implemented by BMP’s and Independent Audits. Instead of building on the existing established science pertaining to forest ecosystems, a lot of enviro’s influenced policy to throw away the good and replaced it with non-scientific, self defeating preservation that ignores species specific silviculture and the need for decades to provide diversity and prepare for stand replacement as old growth dies out. The oil and gas industry probably has a lot more leverage than foresters so I won’t be surprised to find out that the enviros can’t push them around like they have forestry.

    The latest Journal of Forestry has an article about how best to establish tree species outside of their normal range in preparation for climate change. I wonder if the enviro’s will shoot the new trees like some are considering doing with the Barred Owl which is much more suitable to survival than the NSO in any kind of climate change as seen in the map here http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birding/barred-owl/ versus the NSO as seen in the map here http://www.defenders.org/animal-habitat-fact-sheet/northern-spotted-owl?lightbox=range and considering the Barred Owls more flexible foraging characteristics.

    I understand the enviros desire for a simplistic “nature only” philosophy applied to natural resources. Unfortunately, with their fingers in their ears, their unscientific, simplistic approaches will be found more and more not only to be failing but to be working at cross purposes to global change and the driver of survival known as evolution. I don’t think that the enviros are much interested in CPI or we would have a much different owl plan today than more of the “same wing and a prayer” plan as the original failed plan. And we would be reexamining our objectives in the much broader scope of climate change and evolution instead of considering shooting the NSO’s more successful 1st cousin, the Barred Owl.

  3. Gil, I find your comments about “unscientific, simplistic” “enviros” to be misguided. As a professional scientist myself, I nonetheless probably fall into your category of “enviro”. In fact, as a research professor at a research university, I am surrounded daily by other scientists, many of whom are also “enviros.” Ironically, as the guy making this somewhat ridiculous claim about unscientific folks, you yourself are not a scientist, nor have you ever been, at least as far as I can tell. Scientists do research, publish scientific articles, book chapters, etc. Here’s an easy test (though perhaps unscientific): plug your name into Google or other search engine, and see if results about your scientific research or publications show up there. If not, you’re either singularly unproductive, or more likely just not a scientist at all. A final note, most actual scientists that I know realize that reasonable people can disagree on issues, and that resorting to stereotyping or name-calling merely weakens your own position, and lessens your credibility. Best, -Guy

  4. Guy

    I am sorry that you are offended but I am even more sorry that you would not even consider that I might have facts to back up what I say. You too can offend by implying that because you couldn’t find me listed in a Google search as a scientist, I am incapable of determining what is scientific or not and by extension should not question “science”. My concern is with elitism that says that a forester with an education in both the physical and biological sciences from microbes and soils to physiology and forest ecology and a lifetime of staying up to date and experience applying established science and modifying it where it doesn’t fit – isn’t capable of determining what is unscientific in his field as a scientific generalist regarding forest ecosystems. Even my personality type is defined as “the scientist” FWIW 🙂

    Before we go further with the FACTS, lets clarify Sharon’s comment as to “when Gil is saying “unscientific” he may be talking about the idea that “keeping things the way they used to be is best”” But he isn’t. Keeping things the way that they used to be would totally controvert what I said above about CPI (continuous process improvement)

    The FACTS:

    I am disappointed that research specialists discounted the collective science behind sound forest management on 24 million acres of federal lands and discarded it as trash and the result (indirectly through catastrophic insect and fires) is in the process of destroying a large piece of the forest ecosystem in a mad dash to save a minor component of 6 or so million acres of federal lands. As the daddy of the NSO owl says: “we kind of put the blinders on and tried to only manage habitat, hoping things wouldn’t get worse,” Forsman said. “But over time the barred owl’s influence became impossible to ignore.”” http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/The-Spotted-Owls-New-Nemesis.html

    So with panic and supposition instead of science, we shut down the HETEROGENEITY provided by sound forest management in order to provide HOMOGENEITY of habitat for this minor species while ignoring other possible causes and in the process, shut down the very infrastructure and destroyed the lives of those necessary to provide the heterogeneity and all of this was done on the basis of a wing and a prayer. My course on wildlife management back in the 60’s taught me the need for edge effect. Now the latest NSO recovery plan has rediscovered the need for heterogeneity to provide that edge effect. But now we are missing 20+ years of stand replacement, have extremely dense stands that exponentially increase the odds of catastrophic beetle outbreaks and for catastrophic fire with no clearcuts or other silvicultural treatments to minimize the catastrophic destruction. On top of it all, we have no infrastructure to pay for the necessary treatments and we still have some enviros using litigation to impose their unscientific will to preserve a moment in time rather than accept that ecosystems are dynamic and that time doesn’t stand still.

    So where are we on the NSO owl? From extensive reading, it is apparent that all of this has been done to stop evolution as is evidenced by the following science:
    “Both barred and spotted owls, along with great gray owls and rufous-legged owls, belong to the genus Strix, medium-sized birds that lack the hornlike tufts of ear feathers common to many other owls. They are so closely related that they sometimes crossbreed, blurring species boundaries and diluting spotted owl genes. More often, though, when barred owls move in, spotted owls just disappear” – Same link as above
    “Where spotted owls are finicky eaters, barred owls consume almost anything, including spotted owls. Barred owls, typically 20 percent larger than their rivals, may take over spotted owl nests or slam into their breasts like feathery missiles. “The barred owl is the new bully on the block,”” – Same link as above
    “Invasive animal species are more likely to be generalists, such as the barred owl, than specialists, such as the spotted owl and adapt more successfully to a new climate than natives (Dukes and Mooney 1999).” – PIII-9 – http://www.fws.gov/arcata/es/birds/nso/documents/USFWS2011RevisedRecoveryPlanNorthernSpottedOwl.pdf – In addition consider the two links in my previous post above showing the ranges of these two owls and therefore their suitability for adapting to climate change. So the very act of spending millions to protect the NSO (including present considerations to shoot the Barred Owl) is working counter to our ultimate goal of coping with climate change.
    “Key to managing systems for resilience are to keep options open, view events in a regional rather than local context, and to manage for heterogeneity (Holling 1973). Furthermore, managers need to acknowledge our limited understanding and assume that unexpected events will happen. Therefore, managing for resilience does not require the need for precision in predicting future events, “but only a qualitative capacity to devise systems that can absorb and accommodate future events in whatever unexpected form they may take”” – PIII-33 – Same link as above.

    So, Guy, where have I gone wrong? Can you refute my facts? Are foresters better suited to manage forest ecosystems than research specialists working on a minor (non keystone) component of the ecosystem?

  5. Gil, thanks, I think you’re arguing my point. I have no problem with your credentials and extensive experience, and your use of them to discuss forest management issues. But what isn’t constructive is the continual attempts to denigrate those who happen to disagree with you, calling them “simplistic” and “unscientific” and with “their fingers in their ears”. It just makes it harder to take your comments seriously, which is unfortunate. No offense taken here, between the classroom and the courtroom I get lots of opportunity to thicken my skin. No more comments from me on this thread, best wishes, -Guy

  6. Since Guy has withdrawn from the discussion, I’ll ask the rest of you:

    Are we to ignore the facts and pretend that current Federal forest management policy and it’s “nature only” basis isn’t overly simplistic and a therefore unscientific? Can we deny that there are those right here on NCFP who put their fingers in their ears when facts are presented that disprove their policy?

    Re: “It just makes it harder to take your comments seriously, which is unfortunate”. What difference does it make, we have 20+ years where every attempt to be nice has been rebuffed. The radical enviro’s haven’t been nice and they are winning the war of words and policy at a terrible price. Forestry didn’t take false science seriously, we thought that logic would win out. Boy were we wrong.

    How am I making his point: “Ironically, as the guy making this somewhat ridiculous claim about unscientific folks, you yourself are not a scientist, nor have you ever been, at least as far as I can tell.”? Isn’t this rather typical of some enviros who make defamatory claims and use insult in an attempt to quiet the “uninformed” masses? Yet, when the facts are presented contrary to their claims (i.e. the NSO specialists overriding sound forestry science) – there is silence because their fingers are in their ears. Seems like Guy and others think it is alright for them to directly disparage others without basis but statements documented by facts that might suggest that they have some chinks in their armor are unacceptable.

  7. I prefer to think that there is a varied spectrum of beliefs and opinions, in today’s public land management debates. There is no way to “toggle” someone into changing their mindset 180 degrees. I’m just happy to see that preservationists are turning into more open-minded conservationists.

  8. Ah, yes, beliefs and opinions, as some would say ‘the truth is whatever you perceive it to be and therefore all opinions are valid truths’

    What groups do you see as having become “open-minded conservationists”? The Nature Conservancy is the only one that comes to my mind as seeing the value of sound forestry including logging.

      • Bob, I know many quality folks at TNC and they do amazing work,e.g. . Fire Learning Network.

        Also what was very helpful was their work in Conata Basin with the Best Ferret Forever http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/southdakota/explore/return-of-the-black-footed-ferret.xml

        (Interesting the population recovered from 7 breeding pairs rather than the 18 I had originally heard. I once worked with corn breeders who said there was still variation in long-inbred lines of corn.. I expect there are mechanisms to recover diversity we don’t yet understand. )

        They were helpful because they could use MONEY to get ranchers to do things that helped the ferret. Instead of a “bad ranchers get them off” mentality, they had a “let’s share a vision and what does it take to get people to do it” mentality. So money can have a positive influence especially in the light of some organizations who seem to be about what you can’t and shouldn’t do.

        So I would feel good about giving them my money (even though like David I don’t agree about REDDs, if they are still into these).

        Now it is true that they have screwed up in the past or appeared to. But not to annoy David unduly, what large organization has not had individual screw-ups, and who can cast the first stone?

        It would be nice if we could see what had gone wrong with their system and how they corrected it, a la ISO. But perhaps it is there somewhere.

        Rich people fund many of these organizations; but I prefer ones who choose to work in a positive way with people and developing practitioner and scientific information.

        One more thing. In my previous life at the FS I had many dealings with the folks in Colorado and New Mexico. I really appreciated the high quality and real world pragmatism of their scientists, when working with us, particularly with climate change and with the Grassland Plan.

        I guess I’m only human but it’s great to work with people who say “what are the important issues and how can we work together to make things better.” What can each of us bring to the table?
        Than “you venal curs, we will stop you in your tracks because you seek once again to do evil deeds.”

  9. Bob: They received some good press in the SE in regard to using both controlled burns and logging in order to maintain the unique conditions that a couple of properties were acquired for. I was aware that their whole purpose is to turn all acquired properties over to governing authorities when those authorities could pay for them. I grew up in Arlington, Va. so I’m not even too concerned about those salaries. I would be concerned if it was proven that no binding provisions were put in place when those properties were conveyed to governing bodies.

  10. Sharon

    Re: “O&G folks could develop an national industry standard like the Canadians did with CSA”
    I have rethought my original position at the start of this thread. Considering the experience that we have had in forestry and my perception of the mindset of the O&G industry, I would think that O&G would continue to run as fast as possible from any self imposed standards.

    The O&G footprint on any individual piece of land in the south is relatively small, they make things look pretty and cleanup of spills is in the middle of nowhere so their mistakes can usually be taken care of quickly without a whole lot of eyes watching them. In forestry, a harvesting job whether a clearcut or other always looks unsightly to those who are focused on the short term aesthetics and their deer stands (even though four years later they are glad that the clearcut has helped the deer population). In addition, a harvesting job or controlled burn is out there in front of everyone which makes it an open invite for critique. So, the forestry companies that I worked for felt a need to have some kind of defense to keep from being nickled and dimed by those looking to find fault where there was none or by those looking to find a salamander or other environmental concern to use as an excuse to shut things down. Instituting best forestry practices that even provided for lynx and other total forest ecosystem concerns from rare plants to Indian mounds along with independent auditing for conformance, was the only way to stay in business.

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