Ken Kramer, 512-476-6962 (Austin)
Donna Hoffman, 512-477-1729 (Austin)
Victory for Protection of Big Thicket National
Sierra Club and Texas Committee on Natural Resources Win Major Court Victory
The Sierra Club and Texas Committee on Natural Resources won a major victory in federal court this week to protect the Big Thicket National Preserve in East Texas from the impacts of drilling for oil and gas.
The victory came in a decision handed down on Wednesday in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
Federal Judge John D. Bates ruled in favor of the Sierra Club's assertion that the National Park Service (NPS) had acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner by failing to document the risks to the Big Thicket from oil and gas drilling operations located just outside the Preserve for directional drilling under Preserve lands.
In his decision Judge Bates explained that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other federal laws require the agency to provide a detailed analysis of the impacts of the surface activities on the Preserve in order to determine whether those activities risk impairment of the Preserve, in which case drilling may not occur, or whether the impacts may be significant, which would require preparing a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement before drilling could occur.
The Judge ordered NPS to identify precisely what impacts could occur from oil and gas drilling surrounding the Big Thicket.
Brandt Mannchen, Chairman of the Big Thicket Committee for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, whose work on this issue over several years laid the groundwork for the litigation, said that the court decision will force the National Park Service to live up to its responsibilities and to give the public a clearer picture of the impacts of drilling operations on the Big Thicket Preserve. "NEPA requires a detailed analysis and NPS is not doing that," said Mannchen.
"My hope is that this decision will help them do a better job of revealing to the public what the possible impacts are and how they assess that. NPS might say there might be a 'moderate' or a 'negligible' impact of drilling operations - they need to describe that.
What does it look like? They need to quantify what those terms mean exactly."
"Even though they are on the boundary of the Big Thicket Preserve, the drilling pads are on connected waterways," continued Mannchen. "If you were walking along the boundaries of the Preserve, you could hear, you could see, you could sometimes even smell a well. If there were pollution at these drilling sites, it could negatively impact the Preserve. There are dangers of leaks, spills or even blow outs, and NPS needs to address those dangers in determining whether to allow the drilling."
Ken Kramer, Director of the Lone Star Chapter added, "From the Sierra Club's perspective, the National Park Service said 'Trust us; everything will be okay' and the Court supported the Sierra Club's contention that such a position by the NPS doesn't cut it.
The NPS needs to assess and document the potential impacts of drilling operations on the Big Thicket and provide that information to the public before final decisions about drilling are made."
The Big Thicket National Preserve, established in 1974, is comprised of 15 "units" and covers over 88,000 acres of East Texas piney woods lands and is the home of the Alabama Coushatta Indian Reservation.
This week's ruling applies specifically to three drilling sites in the Big Thicket.
Kramer noted, "NPS should apply this decision to thirty-five to forty wells that have been approved since 2002 for directional drilling under the Preserve lands."
Some of the drilling pad sites are as close as 100 feet from the Preserve.
Attorney Tanya Sanerib, who argued the case on behalf of the Sierra Club, the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, and several individuals noted that the federal court ruling has implications beyond just the Big Thicket National Preserve. "Judge Bates rejected the cursory analysis of impacts provided thus far," said Sanerib, "and as a result, when NPS makes these decisions in the future, the agency will be forced to fully consider surface impacts [of directional drilling operations]."
The Plaintiffs are represented in the suit by the Washington D.C. public interest law firm Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal.