Concerns loom over gas drilling on Padre Island
Less than three hours from San Antonio, Padre Island National Seashore stretches along Texas' southeastern coast. Each year more than a half-million visitors can sit on the beach and watch the gulls fly over the seemingly endless Gulf of Mexico. The waves, the mist, the quiet: Padre Island, unlike its rowdy southern cousin, is the place to carve out your piece of solitude.
Yet, energy companies also want to carve out their piece of the national park, where federal law allows corporations such as the Corpus Christi-based BNP to drill for gas. Environmental activists and park service officials are concerned that such drilling not only threatens the endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtle and other creatures' natural habitats, but could transform the world's longest undeveloped barrier island into little more than a 130,000-acre drilling platform.
The latest controversy centers on BNP Petroleum, which is seeking a permit to drill five wells on the seashore; in September, it received permission from the federal government to drill a natural gas well within the park. The National Park Service has issued an environmental assessment of the proposed drilling; it is accepting public comment on the report through December 22.
"I think the park service is doing everything they can to prevent any serious destruction from happening," says Chris Wilhite of the Southern Plains Region of the Sierra Club, which covers Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. "The National Park Service's hands are tied because oil and gas mineral rights under the seashore are privately and state-owned."
Forty-two years ago, when Congress established Padre Island as a National Park, it allocated surface rights to the parks service, but allowed mineral rights to remain in private and state hands as long as the parties held those rights on or before September 27, 1962. However, under federal law, the parks service still can regulate how those mineral rights are mined in order to minimize the impact.
In March 2001, Padre Island National Seashore developed an Oil and Gas Management Plan that outlines how the National Park Service can honor the law while best protecting the environment. Under this plan, drilling companies have to submit a proposed operation plan to the NPS for review and approval. The NPS also prepares an environmental assessment that is subject to public comment.
To access the wells, energy companies bulldoze a portion of the beach and dunes. Since the sites are all located on one pad, no new access roads have been built. Still, it remains unknown if existing drilling operations have harmed island habitats. "We don't know that there's been any environmental damage because it's hard to determine," Wilhite says. "The parks service has done a good job with mitigation, but it's harder to see whether the trucks are damaging the `turtles'` nests."
The 124-page environmental assessment of the recent operation plan states that the most environmentally protective measure is to avoid drilling. If BNP insists on drilling, which is likely, the NPS has developed a plan to mitigate the damage to the island.
According to an Associated Press report, Padre Island National Seashore Superintendent Colin Campbell said as long as BNP follows the plan, the damage should be minimal. "This environmental assessment outlines very strict and balanced mitigating measures that if followed will limit the impacts to the seashore," Campbell was quoted as saying.
Such measures include limiting the number of vehicles allowed on the beach each day and preventing heavy drilling during the sea turtles' nesting season, which runs from April 16 to June 30. Drilling companies would also have to repair ruts in the beach caused by heavy vehicles.
Although federal law allows companies to drill on the seashore and other federal areas (there are 700 oil and gas wells in 13 national parks), Wilhite and other environmental activists are asking the Bush administration to purchase the mineral rights beneath Padre Island. There is a precedent for such an action: Earlier this year, the federal government allocated $235 million to buy the mineral rights at Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida.
There are no publicly released estimates of the cost to buy the Padre Island mineral rights. The Texas land commissioner would be in charge of such an analysis.
"A federal buyout would stop the drilling once and for all," says Wilhite. "You go to the seashore to relax and be in nature. It's insulting to see trucks drilling on what is essentially your land." •
By Lisa Sorg
To see the NPS environmental assessment, go to http://www.nps.gov/pais/pphtml/documents.html
To contact Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, call (512) 463-5001, fax (512) 475-1558, or visit the website at www.glo.state.tx.us/.