National parks hit by shutdown still open for drilling

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Written for E & E Publishing

By Elana Schor and Phil Taylor

The image is tailor-made to stoke fury over the shuttered government: drillers pulling oil and gas from beneath national parkland that citizens are barred from entering. But what greens decry as painful fallout from this week’s shutdown is happening on a smaller scale than some have argued.

Interviews with state regulators, environmentalists and local elected officials suggest that while oil and gas operations continue at Texas and Florida park sites closed to visitors this week, drilling appears dormant at a handful of sites in Ohio, West Virginia and along the Texas Gulf Coast. The nuanced reality raises the question of whether having even two parks open to the fossil-fuel industry but closed to vacationers might prove politically toxic enough to help prod lawmakers toward a deal on government funding.

“It’s disappointing that the public is shut out from national parks but oil companies get to drill in them,” Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters, said in an interview. “We don’t think that makes a lot of sense to a lot of people.”

Not every environmental group is publicizing the drilling in parks, which the Center for American Progress (CAP) first played up last week. The Sierra Club flagged the issue minutes after the shutdown began, and some greens described it as an energy counterpart to scenes of closed war memorials and Head Start programs that have dominated the shutdown’s first days.

“House Republicans are seeing a growing blowback from the shutdown, especially as more vacations get canceled and hunting trips get put on hold,” CAP senior fellow Matt Lee-Ashley, who first spotlighted a 2012 report showing 12 parks with oil and gas production, said via email. “Seeing oil and gas companies continue drilling in national parks during the shutdown adds to that sense that the playing field isn’t level on public lands — that Congress is giving industry a special deal.”

Oil and gas companies in national parks, however, operate on pre-existing private inholdings that allow firms to work during the shutdown. In many cases, industry-controlled land was grandfathered into the parks’ creation.

“One would think that if you own it, you have the right to everything that’s legal,” Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) said in an interview. “I encourage them to continue to create wealth.”

No less an environmental stalwart than Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) described the phenomenon as a gut check for the broader debate over allowing private energy leases on public lands rather than a political weapon to use against shutdown holdouts.

“How much do we surrender? Who is overseeing this?” Blumenauer asked in an interview, adding that drilling in parks is “the least of our problems,” given the broader economic consequences of the closed government. “It’s the issue, not the optics.”

Nicholas Lund, landscape conservation program manager at the National Parks Conservation Association (NCPA), agreed that while drilling in parks is “certainly an issue,” his group is focused on reopening the nation’s 401 closed public spaces.

Still other defenders of the National Park Service raised alarms at the prospect of active wells behind closed gates.

“In reality, this is still public land, and if we don’t use it for the purposes of visiting by the public,” the parks with rigs should be closed fully, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in an interview.

“It’s a safety issue, it’s how it looks, and it’s a double standard,” said the ranking member on the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.

Grijalva last night made public a letter he is planning to send to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking them to halt mining and oil and gas activity on all public lands until the shutdown is over.

While national parks draw more public attention and, most likely, more outrage, with their closures during the shutdown, most drilling on federal lands takes place on Bureau of Land Management acres. Unlike parks, those lands are managed for multiple uses — but visitors are also prohibited from entering BLM recreation areas during the shutdown.

House Republicans passed a narrow funding bill late yesterday that would reopen national parks and the Smithsonian Institution, though not national wildlife refuges, forests or monuments. The legislation and three similarly small-scale continuing resolutions (CRs) face veto threats from the White House and are unlikely to clear the Senate at this point (see related story).

Which parks are pumping?

As of 2010, there were nearly 700 oil and gas drill sites on state or private inholdings within 13 national park units, mostly in the Southeast (Land Letter, Jan. 28, 2010).

But while a map cited by CAP indicates drilling is occurring at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, the Padre Island National Seashore in Texas and the Gauley River National Recreation Area and New River Gorge National River in West Virginia, sources in all three states said they were unaware of any active wells.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources said there are no producing oil and gas wells in Cuyahoga Valley.

Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said she was unaware of any drilling or production activity at Gauley River or New River Gorge. State oil and gas regulators said they also could not identify any active wells on federal lands in the area.

Gas development has also ceased at Padre Island near Corpus Christi, said Hal Suter, a volunteer for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter in Texas.

“Those were all dry holes,” Suter said, referring the term for an empty, uneconomical well. “There is no production, as far as I can tell.”

The Park Service’s approval in 2002 of two new gas wells along the 67-mile seashore triggered an uproar from conservationists, who warned it would tarnish vacation beaches and crush nesting areas for the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Congress established the park in 1962 but allowed mineral rights to remain with private individuals and the state.

An assistant to Kleberg County Judge Juan Escobar said he was also unaware of any oil and gas activity on the seashore. The owner of BNP Petroleum Corp., which drilled the wells, is now bankrupt, according to local media reports.

In contrast, there is significant oil and gas activity occurring at the Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida and at Lake Meredith National Recreation Area in the Texas Panhandle, despite both those units’ being shut to the general public.

According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, there are currently 28 active oil and gas drilling permits at Big Cypress. The mineral estate there is privately owned by the Collier family — one of the biggest landowners in Florida — and has been drilled as far back as the 1970s. Last year, it churned out more than half a million barrels of crude, DEP said.

Big Cypress Superintendent Pedro Ramos has said drilling companies will maintain access into and out of the preserve throughout the government shutdown, according to John Adornato, a regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association.

While would-be park visitors are not resentful of industry’s special access, there is widespread frustration at the closure of national parks, he said.

The shutdown has had no effect on gas production at Lake Meredith, said Suzanne Hicks, a spokeswoman for Pioneer Natural Resources.

“The government shutdown would have minimal, if any, impact,” Hicks said. “Pioneer’s normal operations in the Lake Meredith area are not impacted, and the only thing that might be affected is any permitting that might be required.”

The company in 2004 submitted an operation plan to the Park Service for dozens of wells at the recreation area. Hicks said it was unclear how many wells are currently operating.