Park Service may strengthen its oil and gas regulations

Current rules give the agency little leverage to protect lands or restore damage once drilling companies pull out.


For years, the company operating oil wells in New Mexico’s Aztec National Monument was exempt from being regulated by the National Park Service, which manages the site to protect ancient Pueblo structures. As a result, a dirt access road to one of the wells runs directly over buried ruins. A park archeologist once as a grader resurfacing the deeply rutted road exposed archeological remnants.

The damage to these remnants of an early civilization is just one of many negative consequences of the 9B rule that gives the National Park Service only weak authority to regulate oil and gas drilling on its property. The Park Service this week strengthening the rule. Patrick O'Dell, a petroleum engineer for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, who worked on the proposal in a previous job for the Park Service, called the current rules “grossly inadequate” for restoring the landscape after drilling is done. 

Though most Americans don’t think of national parks as places where drilling happens, there are currently 534 oil and gas operations on 12 national park units, most of them in Texas or further east. The Park Service owns the surface but not the rights to the minerals below. The agency 30 other places in the national park system where future oil and gas development is possible because the resources are there and the mineral rights are owned privately or by states. The Western national parks on that list include New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns, Wyoming’s Grand Teton, North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt and Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes and Mesa Verde. Other park service properties with so-called split estates and potential drilling include Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah and Arizona, Colorado’s Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and Dinosaur National Monument and Fort Union Trading Post Historic Site in North Dakota and Montana. 

Most drilling on federal land takes place in parcels managed by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service, which have greater leeway to regulate because they often own the mineral rights. “Because the Park Service doesn’t own the resource they’re a lot more limited in what they can regulate,” says Nicholas Lund of the National Parks Conservation Association.

The lax regulations have allowed companies to disturb the landscape with access roads that stretch for miles, spill hazardous liquids and avoid paying to restore the land after drilling and production are done, as the Park Service has .

The proposed rules, while still limited, would be stronger in many ways. They would do away with a loophole that currently exempts about 60 percent of drilling operations from NPS regulation; create new fines for minor violations; and eliminate the current $200,000 per operator cap on funds required for restoration after an operator finishes production.

Not long ago, an affiliate of an Australian company, Sprint Energy Limited, snuck out on some wells in Padre Island National Seashore in Texas.

“It was almost Hollywoodish,” says Ed Kassman, a regulatory specialist, of the energy and minerals branch of the National Park Service Geological Resources Division. “The parent company told the operating company to pack up in the middle of the night.”

One of the well pads abandoned overnight by a subsidiary of Sprint Energy Limited of Australia, Modena Operating, LLC.
National Park Service

The Park Service tracked down Sprint Energy in Australia but was only able to demand payment of $200,000, a fraction of the cost of plugging about 10 wells and restoring the habitat, Kassman says. By contrast, under the proposed rules, operators would be required to provide financial assurance that they would pay the entire cost to restore a site.

The Park Service is accepting on its proposal until December 28, and the agency hopes to complete a final rule by next summer.

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent.

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities.
  • HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at
  • Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • at RCAC. See the full description at Apply at [email protected]
  • The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • Hiring a part-time ranch manager to live on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch property in Hayden, CO. Responsibilities include: facility maintenance of historic ranch house,...
  • unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • 10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209,
  • Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @