New Organization Rises Up To Warn About Energy Exploration Impacts On National Parks

As the country endeavors to become more and more energy independent, new techniques for extracting oil and gas from beneath the landscape are greatly expanding the footprint of energy exploration in the country.

While these efforts have greatly increased the production of oil and natural gas in the United States, they also are creating problems when the drilling operations turn up on the doorsteps of national parks.

* The saga of impacts on Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota from energy exploration are well-known. Problems arise with air quality, viewsheds, and even heavy use of campgrounds.

* Near the end of the administration of President George W. Bush there were threats of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management leasing acreage near Dinosaur National Monument, Arches National Park, and Canyonlands National Park for oil and gas exploration.

* Earlier this year there were worries that exploratory efforts just east of Glacier National Park would lead to active production.

Concerns over these drilling projects and their impacts on the national parks have been voiced frequently across the country by various media outlets and advocacy groups. Today there's a new voice supporting those others, in the shape of an organization formed by retired National Park Service rangers.

Ellis Richard, a whose Park Service resume includes being superintendent of Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, says the fervent drive to discover energy resources has brought oil and gas drilling near the borders of Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, and Dinosaur National Monument, which stretches across northeastern Utah into southwestern Colorado.

Mr. Richard says he and a handful of others decided to form Park Rangers For Our Lands with hopes of adding another voice to the campaign to see that national parks are not overrun by the impacts of energy exploration.

"We're concerned about oil and gas drilling next to the boundaries of national parks," he said. "We got interested and actually pretty concerned about what's going on around parks in western Colorado particularly, at this point. We decided to form this group to try to bring some awareness to this issue. We really feel strongly about the values. We're a small group, we've just become activated, and we didn't think anybody else was really speaking out about this. We think this is an issue that's only going to get worse unless we can bring some commonsense to this and apply some pressure to the BLM to get them" to do a better job of managing leases near national parks.

"We all had long careers in the Park Service, we believe in the parks, we spent our entire working lives working to protect them and we don't see any reason not to continue to try to do what we can to protect them even in retirement," said Mr. Richard.

According to his group, the BLM staff in Colorado has proposed leasing thousands of acres next to Dinosaur, including acreage across from the park’s visitor center, for oil and gas leasing. At Mesa Verde, he notes that the park already is facing severe air-quality issues due to both drilling operations and coal burning power plants in the Southwest.

“We know solutions can be hard to find, but that is no excuse for the BLM decisions,” said Mr. Richard. “For the sake of our national parks, we have to restore common sense and balance to decisions about where and how we drill.”

For the immediate future, Park Rangers For Our Lands is focusing its efforts on units of the National Park System in western Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. While the BLM earlier this year deferred leasing thousands of acres for oil and gas development near Dinosaur after public opposition was voiced, the group says the BLM has not fully decided against offering those leases and might put them up for auction down the road.

"I worked at that park (Dinosaur) in 2008 as the acting superintendent. It's a wonderful park, it isn't just a dinosaur quarry, it's got beautiful air quality, wonderful night skies, great wildlife populations, and to ring that park with drill pads and lease sales to me has so many potential impacts that would work against the park, from air quality, water quality to visitation as well as to local economies."

At Mesa Verde, his group is worried that the BLM will offer oil and gas leases near the park later this summer or in the fall.

"We are not opposed to oil and gas drilling on federal lands, we are for commonsense, practical, reasonable ways (to exploration)," Mr. Richard said.

Also worried about the impacts of oil and gas exploration and drilling on national parks is the National Parks Conservation Association. In late April the park advocacy group, worried about unchecked impacts from 'fracking' operations that use a mysterious mixture of water and chemicals to spur oil production, issued a report on the dangers facing national park lands and asked that the BLM as it updates its rules for oil and gas drilling on federal lands pay closer attention to the impacts of those operations on national parks.

“Our national parks are America’s most treasured places, and we need to treat them carefully as we develop the nation’s natural gas and oil,” said Jim Nations, NPCA's vice president for the organization's Center For Park Research.

“Our research revealed that some national parks are already in peril. Unless we take action, air, water, and wildlife will experience permanent harm in other national parks as well,” he said.

In developing its recommendations for the BLM, the NPCA looked at drilling operations around Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Glacier National Park, Grand Teton, in Wyoming, the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River and Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, and the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area and Obed Wild and Scenic River, both in Tennessee.

Among the recommendations in the group’s report are that the BLM require that exploration companies identify the chemicals they use before drilling begins and store flow backwaters in closed loop containers. NPCA also wants to see the National Park Service recognized as a formal “cooperating agency” under the National Environmental Protection Act when there is a possibility that park resources might be impacted by oil and gas activities on adjacent BLM lands.

The NPCA also wants the BLM to require that the exploration industry provide and pay for a comprehensive water quality monitoring plan for all park waters that might be impacted by drilling operations.

"We should not gamble with the health of our national parks,” said Mr. Nations. “Oil and gas resources can be accessed without sacrificing our most important natural areas and most revered historic places.”

At Theodore Roosevelt National Park, drilling rigs are visible from some parts of the park. When the sun goes down the glow of flaring natural gas, like flickering candle flames, can be seen from some parts of the park. Drive along the south boundary of the park and you might encounter signs warning of dangerous levels of hydrogen sulfide around drilling wells. Simply driving to the park is made increasingly dangerous by the heavy traffic tied to servicing and drilling in the oilfields.

At Glacier National Park, there were recent concerns that a sprawling oilfield would sprout not far from the park's eastern boundaries. At Grand Teton, though the nearest exploration and production projects are 50 miles and more away, air quality impacts can be seen from the developments and wildlife habitat corridors are being fragmented.

NPCA’s worries about energy exploration near Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area and the Obed Wild and Scenic River stem from the potential for water contamination in the rivers that flow through the parks, as well as impacts to wildlife. Fortunately, a drilling moratorium currently is in place near the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. However, concerns remain that one day that moratorium could be lifted.

Finally, a report from the Western Organization of Resource Councils outlines worries that the steadily growing energy exploration sector will draw heavily on the water resources in the involved states. This organization also is concerned about the inability of states to track and analyze the chemicals that go into fracking operations and the potential impacts they pose for groundwater resources.