Trump order could ease restrictions on oil and gas drilling in some national parks

Oil pads in the Big Cypress National Preserve have been controversial since the Florida preserve was created in 1974, with oil exploration allowed under the authorizing legislation. Critics say the pads and access roads mar the landscape and pose a threat to wildlife.
Oil pads in the Big Cypress National Preserve have been controversial since the Florida preserve was created in 1974, with oil exploration allowed under the authorizing legislation. Critics say the pads and access roads mar the landscape and pose a threat to wildlife. Miami Herald

When President Donald Trump signed his “energy independence” executive order on Tuesday, he made no mention of making it easier for energy companies to drill for oil in national parks. But tucked into his 2,300-word order is a sentence that could do just that, potentially affecting national park lands in Florida, Kentucky, Texas and other states.

At issue are national parks where the federal government owns the surface lands but private entities retain the underground mineral rights. Some 42 park properties nationwide fall into this category, and energy companies are drilling for oil and gas in 12 of those, according to the Interior Department.

Last year, the Obama administration finalized rules aimed at regulating drilling operations on national park land that previously had been exempt. The new rules also required energy companies to provide adequate bonding to ensure that spills would be cleaned up and drilling sites restored to their natural look once operations ceased.

Trump’s order directs the interior secretary to review and possibly rescind those rules – known as the 9B rules, or “General Provisions and Non-Federal Oil and Gas Rights” – if they are inconsistent with his energy goals.

Environmental groups are protesting the move, saying it conflicts with the National Park Service’s mandate to protect the nation’s parks.

Nicholas Lund, a senior manager with the National Park Conservation Association, said it was “inconceivable” that Trump would seek to turn back the clock on regulating oil rigs in national parks. “These rules are not overly burdensome and they go a long way to ensuring our parks have the protection they deserve,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke suggested that critics are overreacting.

“Secretary Zinke has made his love of our parks clear,” spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email. “Interior is reviewing a number of rules and regulations under the executive order and has no plans to loosen regulations on energy development in national parks or allow new development in additional parks.”

Trump’s directive Tuesday launched the process of rescinding a range of Obama-era policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions and promoting alternative energy in keeping with goals set out in a global agreement on climate change signed in Paris last year. Speaking before a group of coal miners at the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump said he was taking “historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion and to cancel job-killing regulations.”

> Robert Dorrell / McClatchy

Although many Americans may not know it, the National Park Service does not completely own all of its parks nationwide. At more than 40 of these parks, the property remains in a “split estate” status, with mineral rights owned by private companies. Some of the nation’s most iconic parks – including Grand Teton in Wyoming, Mesa Verde in Colorado and the Everglades in Florida – are in this category, although they do not have active oil and gas operations.

Others do. At 12 park properties, energy companies operate 534 oil and gas wells, according to the National Park Conservation Association. At more than half the properties, energy development predated the founding of the parks, Swift said.

Big Cypress National Preserve, 45 miles west of Miami, is one of the most contentious parks with oil operations. The original owners of most of the land – descendants of Barron Collier, a Florida pioneer – retained the mineral rights when Congress created the preserve in 1974. Descendents of Collier have since sought to exploit those rights. In May, the National Park Service approved a plan by the Burnett Oil Co. to begin oil and gas exploration across 70,000 acres of the preserve.

Environmental groups, including the National Park Conservation Association, have sued to halt the exploration. The oil company’s seismic-testing plan calls for heavy equipment to pound the ground with steel plates, creating vibrations to help detect geological structures that might contain oil. Opponents say the tests could damage water supplies and harm threatened species such as panthers, wood storks and red-cockaded woodpeckers.

If the seismic testing led to new oil drilling, the Texas company would be subject to Obama’s new 9B regulations, including requirements for financial bonding to cover potential spills and restoration. If Trump were to rescind the Obama rules, the requirements would revert to 1978 regulations, which allowed an oil company to put up only $200,000 in bonding.

“That is far, far to low,” said Lund, of the National Park Conservation Association. “That is where keeping these new 9B rules is incredibly important.”

The Big South Fork National River and Recreation area, which covers 125,000 acres in Kentucky and Tennessee, is another hotspot for oil and gas development. Some 31 companies operate 152 oil wells in Big South Fork, which protects tributaries of the Cumberland River. Some of these wells are old and prone to leaks, said Lund, who visited the park in 2005 and took photos of the drill sites.

The Trump executive order is not the first time that opponents of the Obama administration have sought to overturn tighter rules on national park oil drilling. Soon after Trump took office, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, a tea party Republican from Arizona, submitted a resolution to repeal the 9B rules. Gosar, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Energy and Minerals, uses rhetoric similar to that of Trump, vowing to “reduce the unnecessary and job-killing red tape that continues to hold back economic development.”

While Secretary Zinke’s spokeswoman said he had no plans to allow new drilling in national parks, Lund said there was increasing pressure to explore for oil around parks in western Texas and New Mexico. Antiquities such as the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park in New Mexico sit in the oil-rich Permian Basin and are surrounded by oil and gas rigs. Chaco is one of the 42 parks where private entities hold subsurface mineral rights.

To protect such parks, the National Park Conservation Association says the ultimate solution is for Congress to purchase mineral rights from private owners. In his recent proposed budget, however, Trump made it clear that he opposes additional federal land expenditures.

Stuart Leavenworth: 202-383-6070, @sleavenworth