Greased Wheels?

Greased Wheels?
By Doug Potter

"There would be no greater joy than to see a beautiful park that our children and adults can go to and learn about the oil and gas industry."

-- A.R. "Tony" Sanchez, 1993

You might expect that kind of talk from an oil and gas tycoon like Tony Sanchez, but if he runs for governor, he might want to explain himself. Was that just Tony talking, or was it a preview of the kind of fuzzy environmental policy we can expect under Sanchez's Democratic leadership? It wouldn't be the first time oil and gas interests had their way with a governor.

Sanchez made the curious remark shortly after receiving permission from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission to drill gas wells in Falcon State Park in South Texas, next to a big reservoir on the Rio Grande. The approval raised questions of whether the commissioners were influenced by the fact that Sanchez had once served on the commission, as an appointee of former Democratic governor Mark White. Moreover, Sanchez's request was unlike others involving Falcon Park. Under normal circumstances, commissioners are legally bound to allow private companies to drill wells on state parkland if they own the subterranean mineral rights. But the Sanchez Oil and Gas request required special approval because it sought wells that slanted beyond the park boundaries, under Falcon Reservoir, an impoundment of the Rio Grande.

Seven years after Sanchez was given the go-ahead at Falcon, environmental and parks advocates are still bitter about the deal, and they bemoan the gradual loss of state parkland to private oil and gas facilities. Sanchez's defenders point to costly mitigation measures the company undertook in exchange for the Falcon permit, which included establishing a $250,000 endowment for the park, paying $150,000 toward a new park station, and donating 90 acres of land along the Rio Grande to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife. Others say that the cost of the park's gradual erosion far outweighs the amount Sanchez invested. "It was selling out for peanuts," former Parks employee Ron Holliday told the Houston Chronicle in 1996. "The purchase of Manhattan comes to mind."

Earlier this year, Sanchez Oil & Gas ran up against another organized effort when it sought a permit for gas exploration in Burnet Bay in Baytown, near Houston. Burnet Bay is -- or was -- a point of local pride for Baytown residents. City officials had even offered to help the company scout for drilling areas upland, to no avail. As it did at Falcon State Park, Sanchez Oil & Gas managed to override community concerns by agreeing to a number of concessions. On July 18, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers notified the company that Permit Application 21814 had been approved. If the company gets lucky in Burnet Bay, it stands to make as much as $80 million in gas production, according to some estimates.

City of Baytown officials, residents, and U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen, a Houston Democrat, wrote letters, made phone calls and testified against the permit. More than 200 Baytown residents attended a Railroad Commission hearing this spring, and all registered against the proposal. Those who testified argued that the proposed drilling site was dangerously close to the $3.6 million Baytown Nature Center, a nationally recognized habitat for 315 bird species. But the permit was granted, and the well location is about a quarter of a mile from both the nature center and the historic San Jacinto monument, a popular tourist attraction.

Not long after Sanchez won approval for the Burnet Bay permit, Baytown Mayor Pete Alfaro wrote a letter to Sanchez, dated Aug. 17, imploring him to reconsider: "It is not too late for you to change your plans and avoid damage to Burnet Bay, the Baytown Nature Center, and the city of Baytown and its residents," Alfaro wrote. The mayor also suggested that "as a public figure," Sanchez would probably prefer to avoid controversy at all costs. "However, if you do not choose ... the course of action that avoids doing harm ..." Alfaro continued, "then please be assured that the city and its residents will be ready to ... focus public attention on how this harm could have been avoided."

In fairness, according to the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, Sanchez Oil & Gas Corp., maintains a satisfactory record of environmental compliance. Neither agency had ever issued enforcement actions against the company. Additionally, TNRCC has no record of violations whatsoever, while RRC documents contain five pollution complaints and one unplugged well complaint made between 1984 and 1999. And four violations were found during routine agency inspections. Considering the size of the company -- Sanchez is the 18th-largest oil and gas producer in the state -- its overall environmental record is surprisingly clean. At least that was the assessment of one RRC employee.

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  • More of the Story

  • Looking for Tony

    Democrats are settling on Tony Sanchez as their next gubernatorial candidate before anyone has an idea who he is.

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