A Texas-based oil company started trampling through the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida’s Everglades on Monday, initiating the first of four planned phases of oil exploration. Last week, President Donald Trump signed an “Energy Independence” Executive Order that will make it more difficult for the National Park Service to protect sensitive public lands like Big Cypress from more fossil fuel development.
While oil and gas and drilling is typically limited within the National Parks system, in some cases, the Park Service did not acquire the oil and gas mineral rights located beneath park units, resulting in a “split estate,” where the federal government owns the surface estate and another entity—individual, nonprofit organization, corporation, state or local government—owns the underlying mineral rights. As of 2015, there were 12 National Park units in this situation with active oil and gas operations. Another 30 units have the potential for future development of non-federal oil and gas rights. Big Cypress is one of them.
President Trump’s Executive Order included a provision directing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review and ultimately suspend, revise, or rescind much-needed updates to what are known as the Park Service’s “9B rules” governing non-federal oil and gas rights in National Park units. The rule affected by the Order was intended to update the 39-year old 9B rules governing split estate oil and gas development within the National Park System, and would have made the following common-sense improvements:
- Requiring operators to post adequate bonds or other financial assurances to ensure that enough funds would be available to clean up spills and restore exploration and drilling sites to natural conditions, in the event an operator becomes insolvent or defaults on its obligations;
- Closing loopholes that currently exempt over half of oil and gas operations in national park units from providing any financial assurances;
- Closing a loophole that allows “privileged access” for oil and gas operators to construct roads or pipelines on public lands to access private oil and gas rights, without providing any compensation; and
- Improving the Park Service’s enforcement authority by incorporating existing penalty provisions and allowing law enforcement staff to write citations for oil and gas operators’ noncompliance.
The Big Cypress National Preserve is an extraordinary and unique national treasure. It is essential to the health of the Florida Everglades and is home to many threatened and endangered species, including the rare Florida panther. It also serves as an important tourist destination in south Florida. Despite the fragility and regional importance of Big Cypress, the National Park Service recently authorized extensive seismic exploration within 70,000 acres of the preserve, most of which consists of sensitive wetland habitats. This is only the first of four planned phases that will ultimately encompass one-third of the preserve. If oil and gas resources are found, drilling would likely be next.
Some drilling has already taken place in Big Cypress outside of the areas currently being explored for more oil and gas. However, the outdated 9B rules have not been protective enough. For example, one operator built a damaging 11-mile long private road across Big Cypress to access an oil and gas lease, which caused environmental damage to the preserve. The Park Service did not receive any compensation in exchange for allowing this damaging access, which could have been used for restoration.
In addition to the “privileged access” loophole, current rules only require an operator to post a bond in the amount of $200,000, for the entire oil and gas operation, which would not be enough to restore preserves like Big Cypress. Actual costs to plug and reclaim abandoned oil and gas wells in wet landscapes, such as the wetlands occurring in Big Cypress, are estimated by the Park Service to cost as much as $215,000 per well. This does not include the costs of remediating a major accident, such as a blow-out or spill, which are not uncommon in the oil and gas industry. Therefore, the precious resources in Big Cypress could be lost forever to private oil and gas development without adequate Park Service oversight.
The much-needed updates to the 9B rules would not prevent oil and gas operations in Big Cypress or other National Park units from taking place, but would provide common-sense protections. At a time when our National Parks are facing an enormous maintenance backlog, it would be irresponsible to shift the risks associated with oil and gas development from the oil and gas industry to American taxpayers.