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.

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