Wilderness Site May See Oil Drilling

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Source of this article – Los Angeles Times, May 31, 2005.

By Julie Cart, Times Staff Writer

GULFPORT, Miss. — Tucked away in the 96-page emergency military spending bill signed by President Bush this month are four paragraphs that give energy companies the right to explore for oil and gas inside a sprawling national park.

The amendment written by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) codifies Mississippi’s claim to mineral rights under federal lands and allows drilling for natural gas under the Gulf Islands National Seashore — a thin necklace of barrier islands that drapes the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico.

As a preliminary step to drilling, the rider permits seismic testing, which involves detonating sound-wave explosions to locate oil and gas deposits in the park. Two of the five Mississippi islands are wilderness areas, and the environs are home to federally protected fish and birds, a large array of sea turtles and the gulf’s largest concentration of bottlenose dolphins.

The legislation marks the first time the federal government has sanctioned seismic exploration on national park property designated as wilderness — which carries with it the highest level of protection.

Energy exploration has been allowed on rare occasions in other parts of national parks over the last decade. Since taking office, the Bush administration has been pushing aggressively for oil and gas drilling in traditionally protected areas. Moreover, administration officials have been whittling away at a long-standing policy aimed at sheltering parks from the ill effects of oil and gas exploration initiated outside park borders.

Mississippi officials and the Department of the Interior have not agreed on the extent of energy exploration in the park. And there are still unresolved conflicts, the most pressing of which is how setting seismic charges on wilderness islands is compatible with the constraints of the federal Wilderness Act, which prohibits ground disturbance and almost any type of development or construction.

“Seismic testing inside a park, in wilderness, with endangered species, arguably inside a place where the mineral rights arguably belong to all of us … I think that’s particularly outrageous,” said Dennis Galvin, former deputy director of the National Park Service. Galvin testified before Congress in 2000, warning of environmental havoc if energy development was allowed in the national seashore.

Jack Moody, a geologist with the Mississippi Development Authority, which is responsible for energy leasing, said the authorization shouldn’t be cause for alarm. The law pertains only to Mississippi’s mineral claims. “We want the right to develop the minerals that the state owns,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we will go through there with a bulldozer.”

The Gulf Islands National Seashore has long been a Gulf Coast playground. The small islands, with white sand beaches ringed by clear shallow water, sit perched on the edge of what locals affectionately call the Redneck Riviera.

The islands extend in a thin network from Mississippi to Florida. Alabama’s Dauphin Island, which is surrounded by extensive oil and gas development, is not included in the park.

In Mississippi, boats ferry day-trippers to West Ship Island where visitors loll on beaches or visit Ft. Massachusetts, built in the 1860s to shore up coastal defenses. Horn and Petit Bois islands are federally designated wilderness and are accessible by private boat or charter for campers, fishermen and others seeking solitude and quiet.

Park officials have been so insistent on maintaining the islands’ primitive nature that self-propelled water skis are banned in their waters — the Mississippi Sound to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south.

Walking amid Horn Island’s expansive dune system, park ranger Ben Moore pointed to the island’s unblemished vista — a tabletop of water running unbroken to the horizon.

“A lot of people don’t understand that this flat horizon is what people from Nebraska come here to see, it’s what people from New York come here to see,” he said, adding that oil rigs, even if planted a mile away from the boundary of the park as anticipated, would be highly visible structures on the horizon.

The Cochran amendment sets the stage for sinking 16-story drilling platforms in state waters that would be in full view of residents and tourists who flock to the gulf’s beaches. In the last 60 years, five wells have been drilled in Mississippi state waters, and none of them has produced oil or gas. But the state now contends that shallow deposits of natural gas could be tapped.

Proponents of exploration said that state and federal regulation would continue to protect the islands and their wildlife.

“By the time someone produces natural gas, they will have gone through a number of state agencies and a number of federal agencies,” said Joe Sims, president of the Alabama and Mississippi division of the U.S. Oil and Gas Assn.

Moreover, he said, the economic boon to the state could be significant. “You don’t know until you drill,” Sims said, “but I use the number $200 million to $300 million over the life of the production” as a likely estimate of the state’s share of royalties and taxes from production under the islands.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, the former head of the Republican National Committee and one of Washington’s most powerful lobbyists, laid the groundwork for drilling in the Gulf Islands National Seashore by signing a bill last year allowing oil and gas leases in state waters surrounding the islands.

Barbour also signed legislation transferring authority over drilling from the state’s environmental quality agency to the Mississippi Development Authority, an economic department with no regulatory power over the environment.

Though the state has the right to allow testing on the islands, Mississippi officials said they didn’t intend to let energy companies set off explosions on land unless the park service requested it. Although that seems unlikely, Moody, of the Mississippi Development Authority, said “good management practices” might lead park officials to want to have the best possible picture of what minerals lay beneath their lands, especially if testing indicated there was nothing worth drilling for.

Moody added that the state would permit cables to be strung across the wilderness areas to facilitate sonic exploration of underground gas deposits. The lines would be attached to high-pressure air guns placed just offshore.

Scientists suspect that seismic testing under water was linked to the death of a pair of beaked whales in 2002 in the Gulf of California and to the deaths of several humpback whales along the coast of Brazil. In controlled experiments, scientists demonstrated that the air guns used in the testing damaged the hearing of fish.

Until recently, national parks had been spared much of the oil and gas prospecting taking place elsewhere on public lands. But new policies have removed some of the barriers to drilling. Today, oil and gas platforms sprout in a dozen national parks. The park service’s traditional objection to energy development near its lands has been eroding steadily in recent years. The change of approach is reflected in a November 2003 memorandum that said the park service didn’t have the legal right to block energy exploration projects that originated outside a park, even if drilling extended under park property or was likely to cause harm to the park.

The memo also made it clear that energy companies would no longer be automatically required to provide the park service with a formal drilling plan. That exemption has the potential to save companies time and money. It allows them to avoid being specific about drilling methods and cleanup procedures, and excuses them from filing a costly federal bond that pays for land remediation after wells are abandoned or stop producing, according the park service’s geology office in Denver.

“The park service has completely reinterpreted what it has jurisdiction over,” said Tanya Sanerib, a lawyer representing the Sierra Club, which is suing over the policy change. “Congress gave the park service broad authority to get involved with issues outside the park if the project impairs park resources. This memo took away their veto power.”

In the past, the park service has opposed projects it said would harm parks. In 2003, the agency objected to a coal-fired power plant hundreds of miles outside Yellowstone National Park. It also objects to a proposed Las Vegas airport just east of the Mojave National Preserve and a massive trash dump next to Joshua Tree National Park.

The park service has headed off previous efforts to drill at the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Galvin, the agency’s deputy director who retired in 2002, told Congress in 2000 that government lawyers had concluded that the agency had the authority to prohibit energy extraction under the seashore. He said that conveying the park’s mineral rights to the state of Mississippi would “negate the authority the National Park Service currently has to protect and manage the valuable natural and cultural resources that are part of the seashore.”

Carol McCoy, chief of the park service’s Geologic Resources Division, said although it was true that the agency had a history of weighing in on outside projects that might affect a park’s wildlife, water or air quality, in the case of oil and gas extraction, the agency viewed its authority as ending at a park’s borders.

“Outside the boundary, we can only recommend,” she said.

McCoy said that parks must balance the right of the property owner — in this case whoever owns the mineral rights in the park — against the park’s obligation to protect its resources. The Department of the Interior has generally acted to avoid such cases, often siding with property owners.

Liz Ford of Pascagoula, Miss., has a personal connection to the policy changes. In the early 1970s, when the Gulf Islands National Seashore was being established, Ford’s family conveyed 500 acres of land they owned on Horn Island to the park service for safekeeping. Ford said her family also relinquished the land’s mineral rights to the federal government.

Her family had always spent summers on the island. Now she worries about what will become of their cherished place.

“My family thought the island was the most wonderful place in the world, and we wanted it to retain its wildness and not be subjected to the kind of development we see elsewhere,” Ford said. “We thought it would be safe in the hands of the park service. It distresses me that what was done in good faith has been undone. To me, it’s a betrayal.”