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January 26, 2024

The report provides specific and comprehensive reclamation guidance for surface oil and gas exploration and development. 

The U. S. Geological Survey, in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management, recently published an oil and gas reclamation techniques and methods report that will, for the first time, give land managers and oil and gas operators specific tools to successfully reclaim disturbed lands during and after oil and gas activities. 

A pronghorn stands in front of oil and gas development infrastructure, Vernal, Utah

Resource inventory, monitoring and protection of oil and gas sites are mandated by federal statutes and regulations, yet this is the first publication defining standards and guidelines for how to reclaim, monitor, and successfully reclaim disturbed oil and gas sites available at a national level. 

The report also emphasizes the importance of best management practices, clear standards, effective monitoring and minimizing surface disturbance for successful land reclamation. 

Initiated through an interagency agreement with the BLM, USGS and BLM drew upon existing federal reclamation policy, scientific literature review, practical field experience and expertise from various sources such as federal and state agencies, oil and gas contractors, and academia to produce the document, intended to be used for each reclamation step from start to finish.

"The BLM’s land management experience and the USGS’s best available science come together to create this powerful tool in the toolbox for federal agencies working on surface management of oil and gas to ensure environmentally responsible outcomes,” said Benjamin Gruber, BLM Acting Assistant Director for Energy, Minerals and Realty Management. “We’re proud to partner with the USGS to produce this guide that is relevant for all parts of the process—from the time a company develops its drilling application to monitoring reclamation activities after wells are plugged.”


Successful reclamation-grass covers the area that once was an active oil or gas well pad

New, comprehensive guidelines

Prior to this report, the industry relied on a set of guidelines known as the ‘Gold Book’ for practical information about oil and gas leasing and permitting, operations, bonding and reclamation planning processes. However, the Gold Book lacks the type of precise guidance often found in instructional memorandums and handbooks produced by surface management agency offices, multi-jurisdictional groups or state agencies. 

To maximize the efficacy of reclamation efforts, a set of national guidance and policies specific to oil and gas monitoring and assessment were needed.

This new USGS-BLM report supplements the Gold Book and other existing guidance by providing thorough and definitive steps and metrics for reclamation surface management. The report provides these kinds of uniform monitoring protocols and standards covering standardized soil and vegetation field monitoring methods, indicators, benchmarks, appropriate designs and analyses and electronic data capture and repositories supports planning procedures, leasing, permitting processes and bond release decisions.

While it was designed to be specific to the oil and gas industry, many of the report’s concepts and practices hold the potential to benefit reclamation of other fluid minerals development and land disturbance, including wind and solar energy development.


USGS staff collects vegetation data on reclaimed oil or gas pad in CO

Leveraging ecological science to achieve success

Land reclamation, in essence, is aimed at techniques that set highly disturbed or degraded ecosystems on a trajectory that benefits native plants and animals and restores functioning habitats and ecological communities similar to surrounding, naturally occurring environments. During this process, the impacts of oil and gas development are minimized. 

This means a major component of land reclamation involves repopulating the landscape with locally appropriate vegetation. Therefore, the report provides useful information about repositories and data collection platforms such as the Landscape Data Commons, Esri ArcGIS Online Survey123, the Database for Inventory Monitoring and Assessment (DIMA) and LandPKS

The report also provides guidance for developing quantitative benchmarks to determine if erosion and vegetation standards have been met, including indicators of erosion and site stability, species composition and community structure.

“This technical publication provides a solid foundation based on current ecological science. It is the product of a collaborative effort between leading ecologists and reclamation scientists at the BLM, USGS, other agencies, and private organizations,” said USGS Deputy Associate Director for Ecosystems Paul Wagner. “The report addresses the need for well-managed data collection to inform reclamation plans, operations, approval decisions, and adaptive management strategies.”

Factors such as climate change, drought, intense storms, swings in temperature and invasive species all affect seedling survival rates. Ensuring that seedlings survive is crucial for agencies and operators to meet federal requirements and achieve reclamation success.

Successful reclamation is achieved when the standards defining soil and vegetation recovery are met, and a self-sustaining, vigorous, diverse, native, or approved plant community that minimizes visual land disturbance, provides forage, stabilizes soils and prevents noxious weeds from taking hold is in place.


Two BLM land managers join a USGS scientists in the field in New Mexico.

Who does this report support?

In conjunction with the Gold Book, this report supports the BLM — the largest surface management agency in the U.S. — with tools to monitor oil and gas reclamation and ensure environmentally responsible outcomes. BLM field office staff guide operators to create reclamation plans and to ensure that reclamation goals and expectations are clear. They inspect reclamation projects’ progress and status, complete quality assessments and quality control of operators’ monitoring data, and provide feedback. 

This report will also be particularly useful for operators and contractors who conduct oil and gas activities on U.S. federal or Tribal lands, surface management agencies who are responsible for advising and enforcing those activities, stewards of private lands and other landowner reclamation projects.

Reclamation has several phases, including interim and final reclamation, which each have differing overall goals. The report can help foster relationships between surface management agencies and operators, highlight timeframes, and provide operators with specific steps and goals in the reclamation process. 

The report may prove particularly useful for restoration efforts funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which provides $4.7 billion for orphaned well site plugging, remediation and reclamation across federal, Tribal, state and private lands (see Through President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, 24 States Set to Begin Plugging Over 10,000 Orphaned Wells). 

Read the full report online: Oil and gas reclamation—Operations, monitoring methods, and standards: U.S. Geological Survey Techniques and Methods

USFWS, BLM, and USGS examining a large, newly reclaimed oil or gas pad
USFWS, BLM, and USGS examining a large, newly reclaimed oil or gas pad.


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Southwest Energy Exploration, Development, and Reclamation

Southwest Energy Exploration, Development, and Reclamation

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