The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Balancing Act

February 25, 2011

National parks will need protection

Without an overhaul of current regulations, national parks on land above the Marcellus shale could be endangered.

Deborah J. Nardone, director of the Sierra Club’s natural gas reform campaign, said the natural gas boom threatens up to 30 parks, including the Gauley River National Recreation Area and the New River Gorge National River. Because of restrictions more than 30 years old, loopholes provide exemptions for more than half of the oil and gas wells in national parks.

The National Park Service posted a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement on proposed revisions to its nonfederal oil and gas regulations. Nardone commended the Park Service for their effort.

“We see a lot of technical problems with the long-standing regulations that are currently in place,” Nardone said. “The current set of regulations were put in place in 1978. As you can imagine, drilling technology and the impacts associated with them, have changed quite a bit.”

Across much of the East Coast, national park land was purchased from private property. In many areas, the private property holders did not hold the mineral rights to their land. Now, mineral rights holders can lease drilling rights to natural gas extractors.

Currently, 11 of  392 national parks have active gas and oil extracting activity on their property. The NPS estimates that about 35 parks lie over or near the Marcellus shale formation. In a publication from the NPS, officials acknowledge the importance of staying abreast of Marcellus shale issues.

“If exploration or development activities are proposed within park boundaries pursuant to privately held oil and gas rights, the NPS may be able to apply its regulations at 36 CFR Part 9, Subpart B to ensure protection of park resources and values,” an NPS report states. “However, because these regulations only apply when an entity must cross federally owned or controlled lands or waters to reach its private property rights, the 9B regulations may not be applicable in all cases.”

Further in the report, the National Park System identified numerous environmental stresses induced by the natural gas industry.

“Natural gas drilling and production is an industrial activity with a host of environmental consequences,” the report states. “Effects include water contamination related to drilling and disposal of drilling fluids, reductions in stream flow and groundwater levels from operational water requirements, air quality degradation from internal combustion engines on drill rigs and trucks, excess dust from equipment transportation, impacts to terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, disruption of solitude, impacts to night skies, impacts to cultural resources and safety concerns associated with the large number of trucks needed to support drilling operations.”

“Modernizing the regulations would brace the park for future threats to the park environment,” the report states. “Although the Service does not have a silver bullet solution to the shale gas problem, updating the 9B regulations is the right place to start. The modernized 9B regulations can serve as a strong model for state regulators by setting the gold standard as they work to control impacts on the parks from drilling sites outside their boundaries.”

The Sierra Club recommendations include a ban on fracking chemicals deemed toxic to the park resources, a requirement for water management plans, demonstration that water withdrawal will not harm park ground or surface water, limitations on habitat fragmentation and an enforceable reclamation plan.

“National park sites are part of the American park system and really are a treasure,” Nardone said. “We all own the parks. They should be protected at a much higher level.”

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