Against fears that the white-sand beaches of Gulf Islands National Seashore soon might be darkened by an oily slick from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, natural gas production flows quietly from Padre Islands National Seashore.
Indeed, though there was a large outcry when the Bush administration late in 2008 proposed to allow energy development near some units of the National Park System in Utah, little angst has been heard about the oil and gas production that currently occurs within 13 units of the park system. And any day that number could be bumped to 14, as back in 2005 U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Mississippi, slipped a short amendment to allow oil and gas exploration in the Gulf Islands into an emergency military spending bill.
The fear and concern that Gulf Islands, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, Padre Island National Seashore, De Soto National Memorial, Everglades National Park, and Dry Tortugas National Park might be impacted by the Deepwater Horizon incident easily overshadows the oil and gas production silently under way elsewhere in the park system. But in light of the environmental contamination such accidents can inflict, it also raises the question in some quarters as to the appropriateness of energy exploration and production within landscapes that are to be treasured and preserved in their natural conditions with minimal impacts.
"We feel anything worthy of being a part of the National Park System, it's inappropriate," said Bryan Faehner, associate director for park uses for the National Parks Conservation Association, said of energy exploration and production in parks. "For those areas that do have it, oil and gas has been problematic."
In Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, for example, the Park Service has noted that, "abandoned wells pose environmental risks and public safety threats, including resource damage from the release of contaminants as deteriorating pressure control equipment fails; subsurface contamination of groundwater absent proper well plugging; personal injury and property damage from spontaneous release of pressurized and highly flammable well fluids; and continued disturbance from unreclaimed oil and gas development."
Now, imagine if you were camped in a wilderness area on a Gulf Coast island that's part of the national seashore, and an explosion awakens you. That could someday happen, for back in 2005 Sen. Cochran's amendment cleared the way for seismic explorations for oil and gas beneath Horn, Petit Bois, and Ship islands, three of Gulf Islands' 11 barrier islands that are the focal points of the national seashore. Two of those islands -- Horn and Petit Bois -- are federally designated wilderness. When it learned of the senator's intentions, the Sierra Club mounted an unsuccessful campaign to derail the legislation.
"If jet skis are considered too detrimental for the National Park, what is the impact of setting off dynamite charges within the park in order to explore for oil and gas?" the group said. "The federal government needs to buy out the mineral rights from the state, completing the job of purchasing the National Park. This will provide money up front to the education trust fund in one lump sum rather than 'gambling' on possibly discovering and extracting oil and gas reserves five to ten years from now. This idea is not new; the Bush administration appropriated $235 million to purchase mineral rights under Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida in 2001 and 2002."
Under the language that was adopted, the Interior secretary could grant permission for both seismic exploration within the national seashore, and for horizontal drilling from lands outside the seashore's boundaries into any oil or natural gas deposits beneath the seashore's property.
Energy exploration and national parks almost seem like opposites that attract, as the 2008 matter with the Bush administration and energy leases outside Arches, Dinosaur, and Canyonlands shows. And then, of course, just recently Glacier National Park was considered to be threatened by energy development in the headwaters of the Flathead River due north of the park. But then the British Columbia government announced it wouldn't permit any mining in the headwaters, and shortly thereafter Montana's two U.S. senators introduced legislation to block energy development in the Flathead area on the U.S. side of the border. Just last week word came that ConocoPhillips was relinquishing the rights to leases it held to the west of Glacier.
Back in November, in an effort to get a better regulatory grip on the oil and gas producers already operating within the park system, the National Park Service announced that it was going 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.
Among the changes the Park Service wanted to make were:
* Higher bonding requirements on producers;
* Giving park superintendents authority to deal with "minor infractions," such as accumulation of oilfield debris onsite, slow response to small contained spills, and lack of maintenance on access roads;
* And a move towards more directional drilling where development was permitted.
Units of the park system that currently have energy production are Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, Aztec Ruins National Monument, Big Cypress National Preserve, Big Thicket National Preserve, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, Gauley River National Recreation Area, Lake Meredith National Recreation Area, New River Gorge National River, Obed Wild and Scenic River, Padre Island National Seashore, and Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
The current regulatory landscape, the one the Park Service is working to rewrite, does not offer the fullest protection for these landscapes from energy production, the NPCA's Mr. Faehner said.
"The (existing regulation) was written in such a way that there's a couple of giant loopholes," he said Tuesday. "More than half of the operations of oil and gas development in the parks are not even being regulated by the Park Service, so they would fall under state standards, and the states are not doing a very good job of protecting those sites and certainly don't have the same standards that the Park Service would have.
"So once these loopholes are taken care of, it will help add another layer of protection," he said. "A basic level of protection that would prevent these companies from starting up their operations and then hitting the road when they got out of business and leaving behind a dangerous risk to visitors, and an environmental threat to the resources."
At Padre Island, the energy being produced is natural gas. It's been in production on the seashore's landscape since before the national seashore was designated, and continued there as a requirement insisted upon by the state of Texas.
"Because Texas has always gotten a lot of royalties off of gas and oil, it was actually written into our legislation when they were establishing the park, that oil and gas extraction, mineral extraction, would always have to be allowed for a park to exist here. That’s one of the things that the state of Texas put down as sort of a must have," said William "Buzz" Botts, the seashore's education coordinator. "It’s allowed throughout the national seashore. We have a little over 134,000 acres in the park and they’re allowed to drill anywhere in the park once they do the necessary application process and we review the plan to make sure that nothing's going to go into ecologically sensitive areas.”
Natural gas is not as dirty to produce as oil can be, in terms of blowouts and spills, and during the decades of production at Padre Island there really haven't been any serious incidents, Mr. Botts said Tuesday. About the biggest problem are the complaints visitors make when production trucks are heading down the beaches to drill sites, he said.
James Lindsay, the seashore's chief of resources, said each of the drill sites has a footprint that's less than 5 acres and that currently there are five sites that are under production and several others that are being reclaimed.
However, something notable, in light of the concerns expressed by Mr. Faehner, is the fact that the production company operating on Padre Island is facing bankruptcy proceedings, according to Mr. Lindsay.
"We were informed where they had a 'black horse' offer for the assets," he said. "It doesn't look like that's going to go through, so we're not sure what's going to happen with them."