"Why are you trying to do our job!?" The question from the oil and gas regulator sliced through the room like a hot knife through butter. The question conveyed the distrust and skepticism of some in a room full of state and federal government employees charged with oversight and regulation of the oil industry. Although everyone in the room carried a similar responsibility, their methods and visions in meeting it were as varied as the colors on a painter's drop cloth.
The issue raising the ire of some in the room was a plan by the US Environmental Protection Agency and US Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement agents to conduct aerial surveys of oil pits in Wyoming. These surveys would be followed by on-the-ground inspections of those pits for bird mortality. My role as an Environmental Contaminants Specialist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service was to assist with the documentation of wildlife mortality and collection of bird carcasses at these inspections.
It is common practice in several Western states, including Wyoming, for oil companies to dispose of wastewater, a byproduct of oil production, into earthen pits. The water-filled pits are magnets for aquatic birds in semi-arid states. Any oil on the surface of these pits is a death warrant for birds and other wildlife using these ponds.
Although connecting with the person firing off the question seemed impossible at the time, that dissenter became one of our greatest allies in the Service's effort to prevent wildlife mortality in oil pits. What brought about the change?
A deep-rooted empathy for animal welfare as well as an interest in hunting and fishing provided the communications bridge that allowed us to accomplish the same goal, preventing needless and avoidable wildlife mortality in oil pits. Over time, trust developed as we recognized how each other's different job missions and responsibilities could lead to the same goal.
Accompanying the state and federal regulators on inspections of oil and gas production facilities allowed me to learn more about the extraction of these mineral resources and to learn to speak the language of the oil patch. By asking countless questions to find out how things worked in the oilfield, I conveyed an interest in the work that they and oilfield workers did for a living. In some cases, the conversation eventually led to discussions about the environment and wildlife conservation, especially when I retrieved oil-covered bird carcasses from the pits.
During an inspection oil industry regulators typically focused on infrastructure - tanks, pump jacks, pipes and valves. Service law enforcement agents and I focused on the water-filled earthen pits, puddles of oil spilled on the ground, and open containers such as buckets filled with oil. Our eyes gravitated to easily missed trails of oil drops leading out from the edge of an oil pit to nearby shrubs or tall grass. The tell-tale trail almost always led to an oil-covered bird that had escaped entrapment in the pit only to die from exposure or oil toxicity under the only shelter it could find.
I knew we were on the road to success when I first heard a state regulator inform an oil operator to remove oil from pits or enclose them with netting. I stood on the sidelines not having to deliver that message myself. Over time, state oil and gas regulatory inspectors contacted us for assistance in dealing with oil operators unwilling to “do the right thing.” Ensuring good “housekeeping” at oil production facilities and the protection of wildlife became a joint effort. Today, oil pits, for the most part, are either not used in oil production facilities or are enclosed with netting to exclude birds and other wildlife. The key has been connecting with individuals via common interests.
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