Texas Parks Get Drilled

Sierra Club files suit over Bush loosening of oil-and- gas rules

Thanks to the Bush administration, there's a new slant on drilling for oil and natural gas under national parks – including here in Texas, at places like Padre Island National Seashore and Big Thicket National Preserve. But rules helping big business "directionally drill" under Texas' parks aren't going unchallenged – the Sierra Club on Nov. 17 unveiled a lawsuit aimed at curtailing the park pillage.

In a teleconference, Chris Wilhite of the Sierra Club's Southern Plains Region and Brandt Mannchen, of the club's Lone Star Chapter, discussed the gutting of laws enacted to protect these parks. The so-called "9-b rules" of the National Parks Service were created more than 20 years ago to allow for oil and gas drilling in parks that included property whose mineral rights remained in private hands. While these rules allowed for drilling, they did so in a way designed to protect the environmental integrity of the park and surrounding areas.

But when Texas-based Davis Brothers Oil Producers requested an exemption to directionally drill under Texas parks – by setting up a well in one area and angling the pipes underground to tap resources further away – the NPS waived rules that required drillers to maintain maximum environmental safety. "What they've decided in this interpretation is that [drillers] don't have to look at those impacts adjacent to the park," said Mannchen. "In other words, unless we have a fracture, or an escape of gas in the park itself, other impacts are not something the Parks Service is concerned about." With the reversal, the White House thumbs its nose not only at the 9-b rules, but also the 1916 law that created the NPS.

These breaches, and the secrecy with which the changes were enacted, constitute the basis for the Sierra Club lawsuit. Mannchen says he discovered the changes practically by accident. "National environmental policy rules ... are being undermined. So the Club is suing on this, because basically, if you're going to change a rule, which is what this reinterpretation has done, you need public review and comment ... not [to change it] secretly, behind the scenes where the public doesn't know it's implemented."

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