House bill could make it harder for national parks to oppose drilling

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The bill could repeal new measures that give park managers authority over energy development within their boundaries.

Big Cyprus National Park and Preserve, in Florida, is one of a handful of national parks with so-called "split estate" ownership. The federal government owns the land, but not the mineral rights. // Photo: National Park Service

Big Cyprus National Park and Preserve, in Florida, is one of a handful of national parks with so-called "split estate" ownership. The federal government owns the land, but not the mineral rights. // Photo: National Park Service

Contrary to what you might think, oil and gas drilling already happens in a few national parks with so-called “split estate” ownership. In these parks, like Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida and Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, the federal government owns the land, but rights to minerals underground are owned by a third party.

If a resolution introduced this week by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), H.J. Res. 46, advances, it could undo new protections passed last year that allow the Park Service the authority to require a plan of operations before drilling, set technical requirements, and enforce safety regulations in split-estate parks.

“If the Park Service’s drilling rules are repealed, national parks across the country would be subjected to poorly regulated oil and gas drilling, threatening parks’ air, water, and wildlife,” says Nicholas Lund, senior manager of the National Parks Conservation Association’s conservation programs. “If Congress wants to protect national parks for future generations, it must reject these challenges.”

Perhaps the most famous of the 40 national parks with split-estate ownership is Grand Teton, whose iconic, jagged peaks draw 3 to 4 million visitors each year. Other parks include Everglades NP in Florida, Mammoth Cave NP in Tennessee, Great Sand Dunes NP and Preserve in Colorado, and Theodore Roosevelt NP in North Dakota.

Gosar, who sponsored the bill, says concern for the welfare of these parks is unwarranted.

“Extremist groups are stoking unsubstantiated claims that H.J. Res. 46 will allow significantly more drilling in our national parks. This is utterly false,” he said in a statement. “H.J. Res. 46 simply seeks to block a midnight Obama regulation implemented in November which unjustly targeted the livelihoods of these existing nonfederal operations. Once this fundamentally flawed Obama regulation is rolled back, these private and state-controlled operations will continue under the same environmental regulations that have worked well for the past 38 years.”

The National Parks Conservation Association points to the documented leaks and spills and the 11-mile road built through Big Cypress National Preserve to access mineral rights there as examples that those regulations are not working for parks. The rules—the result of a five-year effort—set “reasonable safeguards,” which include removing a $200,000 cap on funds NPS can secure to cover the costs of reclamation. In the past, the Park Service has been stood up for those costs and forced to foot the bill from its limited budget.

The National Park Service said it would not comment on pending legislation.

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