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Over a barrel.

A COUPLE WALKS BAREFOOT along a remote beach at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, among the last barrier islands in the United States not covered with condos and convenience stores. Warm waves roll in from the gulf and across their toes as they breathe salt-flavored air. They pass 20-foot dunes, some of which conceal oil and gas wells and a hundred miles of pipeline used to extract natural gas from reserves below the sand.

"Visitors rarely know these are here," says Resource Manager John Miller, referring to a well on the other side of the dunes. "One in a thousand looks behind the dunes and sees the wells. " Today, ten wells dot the landscape, and two more are planned. An aquifer sits only four feet below the surface, and Miller says that 'contaminants entering the wetlands via the water table " could have a serious effect on the wildlife.

Contamination can result from leaks, deposits of brine water, oil and gas condensate; or heavy metals contained in drilling muds (a special liquid used to lubricate drill bits). The extent of aquifer and soil contamination at the park is unknown. To date, an estimated 300 gallons of condensate have been recovered at one site by a company working with the park, Miller says. "Based on the limited sampling that has occurred, we know that at least three additional sites are contaminated with hydrocarbons, and we're working with those companies to clean up the aquifer." Park officials suspect that they will find contamination at 45 additional abandoned sites once funding is available to sample and analyze the water and soils.

Changes in management of oil and gas operations prevent most, if not all, contamination at the park. Now, companies must use systems that contain drilling muds so that the substance does not come into contact with subsurface water or soil. Also, park officials no longer allow operators to use muds that contain heavy metals, previously a source of contamination.

Besides Padre Island, a dozen other national park units have oil and gas operations within their boundaries. The reasons are twofold. Unlike older parks, such as Yellowstone, some newer ones were created out of a patchwork of federal, state, and private lands. In many cases, these lands contained oil and gas reserves.. And, in buying the land, the Park Service focused on surface rights, rather than subsurface oil and gas rights. Subsurface rights, just like other property rights, are protected by the Constitution. If the Park Service wants to eliminate private mineral rights from park boundaries, it must buy them. Unfortunately, the Park Service does not have the funds to buy them all, and, in some cases, buying the mineral rights is not necessary to protect the resources. Acquisition dollars have been scarce in the past and are likely to become even more so in the 104th Congress. But NPS strives to limit the effects of oil and gas operations through application of Park Service regulations contained in the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 9, Subpart B ("9B").

All of the active off and gas operations at Padre Island National Seashore must comply with NPS regulations. This is not the case, however, in other affected parks, where operators fall within two regulatory exemptions.

The 9B rules "grandfathered" oil and gas operations in existence before January 7, 1979, when the regulations became effective, and exempted all of those oil and gas reserves that companies can reach without crossing federal land or water (by using a private road, for example, which leads to property within a park unit).

As a result, 65 percent (379 out of 580) of the nonfederal oil and gas operations in parks do not have to comply with the special park protection measures required by the 9B regulations.

Both NPCA and the Park Service believe the regulations should be strengthened and are seeking to revise the 9B regulations to eliminate the exemptions. NPS has been trying for more than seven years to revise the regulations.

Carol McCoy, chief of policy and regulations for the Park Service's Mining and Minerals Branch, believes revising the 9B regulations is important because the current exemptions include the majority of oil and gas operations in national park units. The proposed revisions must be reviewed by the Department of the Interior and, if approved, published in the Federal Register for public review and comment.

But even without the revisions, park resources are not going completely unprotected. McCoy says Park Service staff have the authority to shut down existing operations if, as the current regulations state, there is " an immediate threat of significant injury to federally owned or controlled lands or waters." Park managers can also invoke the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and several other federal laws to stop harmful practices, she adds.

The Park Service maintains that because these operations came with the parkland, NPS must work with the operators to make certain that they conduct their business in a way that ensures that the resources are protected. NPCA believes that oil and gas activities are inherently at odds with resource protection and have no place in the parks. "We are working to push the Park Service to enhance its regulations. All oil and gas operations should be regulated in some fashion, and those that are detrimental should be blocked or eliminated," says Will Callaway, an NPCA Washington representative.

However, the owners of oil and gas at Padre Island are questioning the legality of the 9B regulations. They have filed suit in U.S. District Court in Texas challenging the Park Service's authority to regulate oil and gas operations within the park. The owners, who claim the regulations are a taking," are seeking compensation for $750 million.

A ruling against the agency could affect the federal government's ability to regulate any activity on private property within a park's boundary.

SIX HUNDRED AND FIFTY miles north of Padre Island on the Texas panhandle at Lake Meredith National Recreation Area, a flock of whooping cranes flies overhead. From the air, the lake's blue water punctuates dry grasslands that seem to stretch into infinity. But on the ground, the land is scarred with countless dirt roads, pump jacks, storage tanks, and pipelines-infrastructure created by 180 active oil and gas wells before the recreation area came under Park Service management.

NPS Environmental Protection Specialist Wes Phillips examines the remains of a 500-year-old Plains Village Indian house, near the site of another proposed well. "We're now looking at mitigation measures," he says. "If the company decides to drill here, they'll have to hire an archaeologist to excavate and remove the site."

Not only the wells themselves ca cause problems, but roads access to oil and gas operations as well as spills can affect park resources. The roads, which Phillips says are "everywhere," are opening up previously inaccessible areas. Oil spills happen "occasionally" at Lake Meredith, but he says companies are good about responding to the mess. "Most will come in and clean things up right away."

Abutting Lake Meredith, an NPS regulated well is pumping at Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument. Fifteen active, regulated operations are in Big Thicket National Preserve in eastern Texas, and more have been proposed. In Louisiana, an unregulated well lies within jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve, on property not yet purchased by the federal government. Three more unregulated wells are pumping in Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico.

Hundreds of miles east of Lake Meredith, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Tennessee contains 210 unregulated oil and gas operations. Standing beside an eddy of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, NPS biologist Steve Bakaletz kneels, cups the murky river water, and lets it flow between his fingers. Before the industrial revolution, the Big South Fork used to run dean, but sediment from poorly built roads has turned it a sickly brown.

Roads built to serve those 210 operations are affecting the area's watershed. Bakaletz says eroded son from road construction washes into nearby streams and damages life under water. Pump jacks, storage tanks, and pipelines also create an eyesore for visitors.

Some companies, when they are done with an operation, have removed metal casings that line wells and keep contaminants from leaking into the groundwater. Removal of the casing leaves a hole in the ground that can fill with oil or salt water and contaminate the aquifer. Bakaletz says he cannot tell how bad the problem is because he cannot find many of the old well sites and test them for water quality.

Leaks and spills are another problem. Vandals have shot holes in pipelines at Big South Fork several times in recent years, and three oil trucks have tipped over and spilled their loads into the river. Bakaletz says damage from the spills has been limited by fast, efficient company action. He says oil and gas companies are becoming more responsive to environmental concerns.

Elsewhere in the Park Service's Southeast region, Obed Wild and Scenic River in eastern Tennessee has four unregulated wells. West Virginia's Gauley River National Recreation Area has 11 unregulated wells, and New River Gorge National River has two.

Park Service biologist Meg Benke drives through Ohio's Cuyaboga Valley National Recreation Area on her way to check one of the 97 oil and gas wells in the park. She turns off the main road bordered with beech and maple trees and stops at a pump jack. "I go out and check each well on an annual basis, says Benke, looking for oil leaks at a well head. I don't get out to check them as often as I should--I just don't have the time."

Benke's boss, Brian McHugh, chief of resource management and visitor protection, explains that the biologists are overwhelmed. There is too much to do, and not enough time to do it in." McHugh says he needs more staff to write emergency spill plans and to monitor pipelines and wells for leaks.

Extracting oil and gas from the ground is "a messy operation," he says, and several wells no longer in use in the recreation area have not been properly plugged, negligence that could pollute a nearby aquifer. The unit does not have a groundwater monitoring system in place, but " People are drinking the water," says McHugh. "I think we would have heard if there was a problem." Although oil companies at Cuyahoga usually cooperate with the Park Service, he says, "it takes vigilance to make sure the operators conduct their business properly."

Pollution has been an issue at Florida's Big Cypress National Preserve, where spilled oil and brine have tainted the wetlands seven times since 1990, according to Ron Clark, mineral management specialist. American alligators, manatees, Florida panthers, bald eagles, and an ark of other rare, endangered, or threatened species depend on the rivers and streams of Big Cypress, most of which flow into the Everglades. The primary force behind establishing the preserve was to assure enough high-quality water for Everglades National Park," says Big Cypress Superintendent Wallace Hibbard.

The preserve may contain some heavy metals, but Clark says, "We're not aware of any permanent effects from any of the spills." Environmental damage from the 30 oil and gas wells in the preserve is minimal, he says, because local operators adhere to the 9B rules, follow the park's minerals management plan, and quickly clean up spills.

Just as some oil and gas operations within a park's boundaries must adhere to NPS regulations, those proposed for public lands outside a park's boundaries must adhere to the governing agencies' rules. When the developments are adjacent to a park's boundaries on private land, NPS tries to use its "power of persuasion' to get operators to make changes to limit the effect to the resources. This method does not always work. At Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, NPCA has been active in trying to stop new wells from being drilled.

Roger Andrascik, resource management specialist at Teddy Roosevelt, walks through Elkhorn Ranch and glances at the twisting gullies and canyons of the surrounding Badlands. A pump jack spoils the view, and gas fumes foul the air. "They are planning to drill at least 630 new wells in the next ten years," he says. A dozen companies plan to drill on a national grassland three miles from the park boundary, adding to the 1,500 wells already there. "When the price of off goes up, they'll start drilling."

At least 22 other park units face threats from oil and gas activities at their borders. These include Glacier, where NPCA and other groups went to court and won a one-year hold on plans to drill in the Badger-Two Medicine area. Also potentially threatened by oil and gas activities are two parks in Alaska, where Native corporations may drill on Native-owned lands inside and adjacent to park boundaries.

"U.S. oil demands rise every year," notes Bruce Heise, environmental protection specialist with the Park Service's Mining and Minerals Branch, "and so do oil imports. The United States has been explored extensively, and most large oil fields have been tapped." But dealing with foreign oil exporters has its disadvantages, he says, so the demand will continue for access to drill on public lands in the United States, especially for gas. New Clean Air Act standards and favorable economic conditions are spurring the industry to apply for drilling permits around Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Colorado, Fossil Butte National Monument in Wyoming, Gauley River National Recreation Area and New River Gorge National River in West Virginia, and Lake Meredith National Recreation Area in Texas, he adds.

Leonard Bower, who directs policy at the American Petroleum Institute--a trade organization representing the U.S. oil and gas industry--believes that oil and gas activities are not necessarily incompatible with national parks. "To get the most value from its land, the federal government needs to weigh the costs and benefits of various uses, including oil and gas extraction. "

Joe Lastelic, who handles public relations for the American Petroleum Institute, says, "Federal lands could be a major aspect of our national energy reserves." But he adds that millions of acres" in wilderness areas are closed off to oil and gas development.

Some of the new leadership in Congress may agree with the petroleum institute. The shift in Congress, some conservationists believe, could mean more efforts to open previously untouched areas to oil and gas development. Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), declined to be interviewed about his upcoming agenda, says his press secretary Chuck Kleeschultee. In the past, Murkowski bas supported opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. Conservationists have estimated that oil and gas found there might supply about three months of U.S. consumption and compromise forever this fragile ecosystem. But, Kleeschultee adds, "If you are asking if Sen. Murkowski supports oil wells in the middle of Yellowstone, the answer is no."
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Title Annotation:200 or more unregulated oil and gas operations in the national parks
Author:Lee, David N. B.
Publication:National Parks
Date:Mar 1, 1995
Previous Article:Debating significance.
Next Article:Denizens of the dark.

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