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 watched 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 proposed 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 identified 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 documented.

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 public comment 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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!