National Park Service Revising Regulations To Better Manage Oil And Gas Exploration in Parks

There has been oil drilling at Padre Island National Seashore since at least the 1970s. NPS photo.

Call it long overdue housekeeping, but the National Park Service is working to revise 30-year-old regulations that affect non-federal oil and gas development that could occur, or already is occurring, in some of its units. In other words, energy development within a park on lands owned by anyone other than the federal government, such as states or even private landowners. The bottom-line of the proposed revisions is to better protect parks from energy development.

Here's a snippet of the existing regulations to give you an idea of what they cover:

The “9B” regulations require prospective operators to obtain National Park Service approval of their plans of operations and to secure reclamation bonds before they commence operations in a unit. The plan details all activities of the oil and gas development, describes how reclamation will be completed, and provides the basis for performance bonds. The National Park Service uses the information to determine the effects of proposed operations on the environment, visitor uses, and park management. Once approved, the plan serves as the operator's permit. Because of regulatory exemptions, about 50% of the 711 non-federal oil and gas operations in 13 units are outside the scope of the 36 CFR 9B regulations, that is, their operators do not have to obtain approval from the National Park Service to operate.

The regulations now under review, which affect only 13 of the Park Service's 392 units, have some obvious gaps in them that could be detrimental to a park. One pertains to the dollar-amount of bonds operators must post to see that their sites are restored.

The existing regulations place a bonding cap of up to $200,000 per operator, per NPS unit. Therefore, if one operator has multiple wells in a park unit, the NPS can only require up to $200,000 financial assurance from that one operator. The NPS is considering eliminating the bonding cap, which was established in 1978, and replacing it with a variable amount of financial assurance equal to the reasonable estimated cost of reclamation and liability today.

The NPS also is debating "directional drilling" to tap reserves. Under this approach, drilling rigs and pads are set up outside a park's borders, and then the drill goes diagonally into the mineral reserves below the park's surface.

The Service's goal relative to non-Federal oil and gas operations is to protect parks by eliminating direct impacts to park resources and values. When an operator takes advantage of the directional drilling provision of the regulations and locates its surface facilities outside park boundaries, the operator has significantly reduced direct impacts to park resources and values. By so doing, the operator has deployed a major park protection mitigation measure. While potential indirect impacts of sight, sound, artificial light, odor, and spills may exist from drilling operations outside a park, they are usually much reduced relative to surface operations in a park. Such impacts are diminished even further once the operation progresses from the drilling to production phase.

Another kink in the existing regs, which date to 1979, is that there are no clear-cut provisions for how the Park Service can deal with so-called minor infractions committed by developers.

The Superintendent has no practical method for dealing with minor regulatory infractions that do not rise to the level of suspension, revocation, or judicial intervention. Examples of minor infractions include accumulation of oilfield debris onsite, slow response to small contained spills, and lack of maintenance on access roads. The NPS is considering revising the regulations to allow the use of administrative assessments to address minor violations of the regulations or a term or condition of an approved permit.

On its face, this is pretty dry stuff. But left unchecked, it can come back to bite the Park Service. The agency is taking public comment on these issues until January 25. You can find the entire notice at this site, and comment at www.regulations.gov.