The Oil and Gas Program at Padre Island National Seashore
Effective Date: April 15, 2004
Issues related to the development and exploration of oil and gas minerals underlying Padre Island National Seashore are of considerable concern to many of the park’s visitors and the public. As the land management agency charged with protecting the largest portion of undeveloped barrier island in the world, the National Park Service (NPS) is equally concerned with the exploration and development of oil and gas within the park and its affects on the park’s natural resources, cultural resources, and the visitor experience. The following information may help understand the process that the NPS follows regarding oil and gas development and the protection of park resources and values.
Congress established Padre Island National Seashore on September 28, 1962 to “save and preserve, for purposes of public recreation, benefit, and inspiration, a portion of the diminishing seashore of the United States that remains undeveloped” (16 U.S.C. §459d, et seq). This enabling legislation stipulated that the original grantors of the property retain all rights to minerals within what became the National Seashore. Therefore, the mineral estate underlying the park is either owned privately or by the State of Texas. The National Park Service is legally required to allow access to the minerals while applying stringent requirements and ensuring adherence to federal and state regulations, policies, and guidelines.
The NPS promulgated specific regulations at 36 CFR Part 9, Subpart B, commonly referred to as the “9B Regulations” to provide a system wide regulatory framework governing the exercise of nonfederal oil and gas rights. The purposes of the regulations are to “insure that activities undertaken pursuant to [nonfederal oil and gas rights] are conducted in a manner consistent with the purposes for which the National Park System and each unit thereof were created, to prevent or minimize damage to the environment and other resource values, and to insure to the extent feasible that all units of the National Park System are left unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” 36 C.F.R. § 9.30(a). The regulations are designed to control conduct associated with private mineral rights on federal land so that these activities avoid or minimize harm to park resources and values.
The 9B regulations require that each oil and gas operator develop a Plan of Operation that outlines the specific location, process, protection measures, and other information that will be employed during the oil and gas activity. The NPS evaluates the submitted plan and must determine whether those operations will affect park visitors or resources and if so, how to eliminate, minimize, or mitigate those impacts. This evaluation process includes the development of an environmental document that solicits public involvement as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. By attaining public review and input, the park can help ensure that impacts are addressed, reasonable alternatives are considered, and a balance can be reached protecting the park’s resources and visitor experiences, and allowing access to privately held minerals.
Many park resources and values are considered when evaluating a Plan of Operation including sea turtles, vegetation, shorebirds, visitor use, cultural sites, and natural soundscapes to name a few. Padre Island National Seashore staff has extensive knowledge and experience pertaining to the protection of nesting Kemp’s ridleys and routinely works with numerous federal and state agencies to ensure that this valuable resource is protected. Over 80 mitigation measures have been developed to minimize or eliminate the impacts to park resources and visitors, and are required of all oil and gas operators working in the park. Some of these measures include:
Drilling for oil and gas is a recent occurrence
Exploration, development, and production of oil and gas minerals have occurred on Padre Island since the early 1950’s. Seventy-five operations have been conducted at Padre Island National Seashore to date including 53 abandoned and plugged wells, nine seismic operations, six pipelines, and seven operating gas wells. The majority of these operations took place between 1951 and 1981 with at least 14 operations pre-dating the establishment of Padre Island National Seashore in 1962. During the past decade and under administrations of both political parties, three wells have been drilled and three operations have been approved but not drilled.
Aggressive drilling campaign for 20 wells
Currently, the National Park Service does not have any Plans of Operations or proposals from BNP Petroleum or any other company for the approval of “15 to 20 gas wells in the seashore dunes.” We speculate that this information regarding 15 to 20 wells was derived from information mentioned in the Oil and Gas Management Plan (OGMP) developed for Padre Island National Seashore. In the OGMP, an estimate was made regarding a development scenario of up to 30 wells over the next 30 years. This estimate was considered a reasonable foreseeable development scenario and based on the historic oil and gas development that has occurred within and adjacent to the park since the 1950’s, the geologic formation underlying the park, and the availability of new technology that attempt to locate small isolated pockets of oil and gas reserves. The OGMP is a programmatic document that is used for guidance and planning, but does not approve any oil and gas operations.
Violation of Endangered Species Act or no formal endangered species consultation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Every oil and gas operation must be approved by the NPS prior to the activity taking place in a park. This approval is based on compliance with federal and state laws, and NPS regulations, policies, and guidelines. The NPS must coordinate and consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association – Fisheries (NOAAF) on all activities that may affect a federally endangered or threatened species as stipulated by the Endangered Species Act prior to that activity taking place. The NPS can either consult formally or informally depending on the NPS’s interpretation of the potential effects to each protected species. The interpretation is based on scientific knowledge, professional experience, and species information, and generally includes mitigation measures to avoid, minimize, or mitigate any identified effect. The USFWS and NOAAF reviews the information provided by the NPS and through their own analysis will determine whether or not they concur with our interpretation. Approval by the NPS cannot be given without concurrence from USFWS or NOAAF.
Oil and gas activities could deter Kemp’s ridley nesting and crush nests.
There may be times when eggs, nesting turtles, hatchlings, and stranded turtles could be directly vulnerable to all activities taking place along the beach including both oil and gas and recreational traffic. Visitors are permitted to operate their vehicles along most of the Gulf beachfront at PAIS, with driving occurring from the water’s edge to the dunes. In the areas where beach driving is permitted, sea turtles that nest and hatchlings that emerge from undetected nests cross at least one vehicular roadway and hence could be vulnerable to crushing from vehicles. No nesting sea turtles, hatchlings, or eggs have been documented as struck or killed by vehicles at PAIS. Currently the NPS removes all sea turtle eggs that are located from the beach and transfers them to the incubation facility at PAIS. Hatching success is usually elevated substantially for eggs that are transferred to this facility rather than left on the beach to hatch. The NPS also protects nesting turtles while they are on the beach and removes stranded turtles for rehabilitation or study. That will further reduce the potential for affecting nesting turtles or hatchlings through vibrations and noise. As a beneficial side effect, trained observers and oil and gas vehicle operators provide additional observations and assist the NPS with its efforts to detect, investigate, monitor, and protect nesting sea turtles, nests, hatchlings, and stranded turtles. To reduce the direct impacts that could occur from crushing or covering of nests or turtles, many mitigation measures have been created and are applied to all oil and gas operators. These measures include:
There has been vehicle traffic, from both visitors and heavy equipment operators, on the Gulf of Mexico shoreline for over fifty years with no documented case of a crushing of a nesting sea turtle within the park.
Environmental Assessment does not address threats.
A thorough analysis of the threats and impacts to park resources and values from oil and gas activities must be undertaken for every proposed oil and gas operation. This assessment is required by NPS policy and the National Environmental Policy Act, and takes place prior to any approval being granted by the NPS. This environmental document involves comments solicited from the public regarding all aspects of the operation, an analysis of viable alternatives, and measures that the NPS would require to minimize any effects from the operation. In addition to the public comment, federal and state agencies review each document and provide additional information that is used in the analysis process. Substantive comments are incorporated into the threat assessment so that a thorough analysis of all impacts is conducted. The NPS then follows a detailed internal review process for all environmental documents, which must be completed prior to NPS approval of any oil and gas activity.
Federal buyout of privately and state held minerals.
In the event that a proposed operation cannot be sufficiently modified to prevent the impairment of park resources and values, the NPS may seek to extinguish the associated mineral right through acquisition, subject to the appropriation of funds from Congress. The NPS believes that a balance between the protection of park resources and values and access to oil and gas minerals, has been reached based on the extensive requirements placed on all oil and gas operators. These measures substantially reduce the potential for adverse impacts to park resources and values. If a federal buyout of the mineral estate occurred, the possibility of oil and gas development would be reduced, but not eliminated. The federal government could continue to pursue oil and gas minerals; however the cost of mineral acquisition would be extensive.
Square mile or more of impacts from an individual oil and gas operation.
Impacts from an individual oil and gas operation may include long term and short term impacts. The short term impacts are those that recover in a period from several days to three years and would include impacts from an activity such as burying a pipeline that will be re-vegetated and the impacts restored. Long-term impacts may last up to 20 years or longer and are typically associated with a producing well where facilities like an access road or pad will remain for the life of the well. In Padre Island National Seashore’s Oil and Gas Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement, the NPS developed a reasonable assessment of the level of impacts likely to be created by an individual operation. The analysis concluded that approximately 13 acres of long term vegetation impacts may result from the creation of a wells access road and pad. This level of impact is not equal to a square mile or 640 acres. The impacts associated with the last three proposed well operations indicated that impacts would range from 2 to 5.5 acres. However, of the three proposed wells only one well has been drilled, which resulted in 2 acres of actual impact.
Radioactive probe left on Padre Island.
As a well is developed, different techniques are used to determine how productive or safe a well is. A radioactive well logging probe is commonly used by drilling companies to measure the properties of rock and other materials where a well is being dug to help determine the presence of water, gas, or oil. The use of radioactive probes is a standard practice used throughout the oil and gas industry. Unfortunately, there are times when these and other types of probes become damaged while inspecting a well bore and cannot be retrieved. Radioactive probes contain a small amount of radioactive material, which when properly handled pose little human risk. If a probe cannot be retrieved and needs to be left in place, special reporting and abandoning requirements established by the State of Texas are used to ensure that the probe is isolated and will not pose a significant environmental risk. The NPS is not aware of a probe being left within the park. However, a probe was left in a well drilled outside of the park on Padre Island.
Padre Island National Seashore prides itself on having the best oil and gas management program in the National Park Service. We constantly strive to utilize cutting edge technology, review and update established mitigation measures, evaluate past practices, apply current research findings, incorporate public comment, and coordinate with our partners to ensure that we are accomplishing our mission of preserving and protecting park resources. These actions help provide an enjoyable visitor experience, protect park natural and cultural resources, but still allow Congressionally mandated access to non-federal oil and gas minerals.