Blog Post Nicholas Lund Feb 10, 2017

The Facts on Oil and Gas Drilling in National Parks

Why we must stop Congress from repealing the 9B rules that safeguard our national parks

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At the end of January, Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar introduced House Joint Resolution 46, which would repeal safety and enforcement standards for oil and gas drilling in more than 40 national parks, including Everglades, Grand Teton and Mesa Verde. This is a serious and direct threat to the ability of the National Park Service to protect our national parks from the impacts of oil and gas drilling inside their boundaries.

NPCA takes this threat very seriously. Here’s what you need to know about Rep. Gosar’s attempted repeal and what you can do about it.

 

What are the National Park Service 9B rules? Why are they needed?

In some national parks, the federal government owns the surface lands and private companies own some of the mineral rights below the surface. This situation is called a “split estate,” and it presents a potential for conflict when a private company exercises its rights to extract minerals while the Park Service tries to uphold its legal mandate to leave parks “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

To help find the appropriate balance between national park protection and private rights, the Park Service created the “9B” rules in 1978 to set forth standards that limit the harm to parks. But as drilling technologies evolved and the Park Service gained a better understanding of how to protect park resources, those 1978 rules became inadequate. The Park Service began updating them in 2009. The updates went into effect in 2016 after a seven-year process.

 

How much drilling occurs in national parks?

There are currently 534 active oil and gas wells across 12 units of the National Park System. There are 30 additional national parks with some “split estate” lands, but no active drilling at this point. Here is a list of all national park units affected by 9B rules.

 

What do the 9B updates do?

The Park Service updated the rules in several important ways:

  • Removed exemptions that allowed wells to operate without Park Service approval. About 60 percent of all wells in national parks – 319 wells, to be exact – were exempted from the 1978 rules, leaving national parks powerless to address leaks and spills. The 9B updates ensure all 534 wells in national parks comply with safety standards.
  • Lifted the bonding cap. Oil and gas operators are typically required to put up money before they begin drilling to ensure that the government has funds available to clean and close wells if the company abandons them. The 1978 rules set an arbitrary bonding cap of $200,000 per operator per park, which is much lower than the actual costs of recovery. The Park Service estimates that taxpayers would currently be on the hook for $12 million in cleanup costs from wells in parks without this update.
  • Allowed the Park Service to charge companies fees to use national park land. Under the 1978 rules, drillers could freely use national park surface lands to access their mineral rights. Drilling companies could disturb large swaths of national park habitat for the construction of roads and pipelines, such as an 11-mile dirt road that allows heavy trucks to travel through sensitive marsh habitat in Big Cypress National Preserve. The 9B updates allow the Park Service to charge a fee for such use of national park lands, helping the agency restore parklands damaged or destroyed by drilling companies.
  • Allowed Park Service law enforcement to better enforce safety standards. The 1978 rules did not give the Park Service much authority to hold operators accountable when they failed to follow agreed-to safety standards. The 9B updates allow the Park Service law enforcement officers to issue citations to operators whose negligence can result in spills or other damage to national park land.

Were these updates rushed “midnight rules”?

No. These updates, which were implemented in 2016, had been in development since November 2009 and had a full seven years for public input and debate. The Park Service provided opportunities for the public, state officials, industry representatives and other interested parties to comment.

 

What happened in the House of Representatives?

On Jan 30, 2017, Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona introduced House Joint Resolution 46, which would repeal the updates to the 9B rules using a tool called the Congressional Review Act. If this repeal is successful, the language of the Congressional Review Act stipulates that not only will the updates be repealed, but the Park Service will be forever barred from undertaking similar rulemaking, meaning that the outdated 1978 rules, which the Park Service identified as inadequate to protect our national parks, can never be changed except through an act of Congress.

 

Who joined Gosar in support of House Joint Resolution 46?

Six Republican representatives cosponsored Gosar’s bill to lift safeguards for drilling in national parks:

  • Rep. Dan Newhouse from the 4th District in Washington (@RepNewhouse);
  • Rep. Louie Gohmert from the 1st District of Texas (@replouiegohmert);
  • Rep. Diane Black from the 6th District of Tennessee (@RepDianeBlack);
  • Rep. Andy Biggs from the 5th District in Arizona (@andybiggs4az);
  • Rep. Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen from American Samoa (@RepAmata);
  • Rep. Kevin Cramer from North Dakota (@RepKevinCramer)

 

What is happening now?

There is currently no vote scheduled on the bill. NPCA is watching closely to see whether members of Congress will make any further moves to advance this bill and will take immediate action if they do.

 

What would happen if these updates are repealed?

If the 9B updates are repealed, the Park Service would revert back to the outdated rules from 1978. The 319 wells would become exempt from badly needed safety upgrades, taxpayers would remain on the hook for millions of dollars in cleanup costs, law enforcement would not have the authority to enforce safety compliance, and the Park Service could not charge drillers for damaging national park lands. The 1978 rules badly needed updating, and it took seven years to get the updates right. These updated rules are beneficial for national parks and should not be repealed.

 

What can I do about it?

Let the cosponsors of the bill and your own members of Congress know how opposed you are to weakening safety standards for oil and gas drilling in national parks. Tweet using the handles above, contact your representatives through our action alert or call them using our congressional lookup.

About the author

  • Nicholas Lund Senior Manager, Landscape Conservation Program

    As Senior Manager for the Landscape Conservation Program, Nick focuses his efforts on oil and gas activities in and around our national parks. In his spare time, Nick writes silly things about birds for TheBirdist.com, Audubon, and Slate.