The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday detailed a temporary plan to allow oil and natural gas activity to continue near endangered insects in eastern Oklahoma.
The two-year, interim plan would provide a uniform way for oil and natural gas companies to receive incidental take permits for the American burying beetle, allowing them to continue operating in the beetle’s habitat, which includes 45 counties in central and eastern Oklahoma.
Negotiations continue on a more comprehensive, 30-year general conservation plan.
“It’s going to be good for everyone involved to try to move faster and make sure the folks doing those sorts of activities can move forward without a risk of violating the Endangered Species Act,” said Michelle Shaughnessy, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s assistant regional director for ecological services.
“This plan allows them to move forward without that risk and provides some great conservation for the species at the same time. It’s a great win-win.”
Classified as an endangered species since 1989, the American burying beetle has slowed pipeline construction and inflated project costs throughout the eastern half of the state.
The Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012 suspended its established practice of requiring companies to bait and trap beetles before operating in the area. As a result, the industry has had no universal process to receive a permit to operate in the area.
Brian Woodard, vice president of regulatory affairs at the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, said he is hopeful the proposed rules will remove the uncertainty.
“We’re certainly supportive of this avenue, but we recognize the avenue is not perfect,” Woodard said. “It places additional financial burdens on our members, but without this, we don’t have a compliance mechanism.”
The petroleum association pushed for the interim rules when it became clear the more permanent structure would not be completed this year.
“We couldn’t pursue down the path of another active season without an option for incidental take,” Woodard said.
Under the proposed rules, companies can receive permits to operate in beetle habitat areas if they either develop their own conservation areas for the endangered insects or buy conservation credits to support an approved, existing conservation bank. The companies must offset every acre of burying beetle habitat they affect.
The Fish and Wildlife Service already has approved two conservation banks in the state, including the American Burying Beetle Conservation Bank. The conservation bank is operated by Edmond-based Common Ground Capital on 1,600 acres of Pittsburgh County.
Common Ground Capital owner Wayne Walker praised the proposed rules Tuesday.
“Assuming the intermediate plan is approved, that will allow the industry to avoid further delay on producing in eastern Oklahoma,” Walker said. “We’re very excited about it.”
Tuesday’s announcement marks the start of a 14-day comment period for the proposed rules. If the plan is approved without further delay, the first permits could be issued by the end of June, Shaughnessy said.