By CHRISTINE S. DIAMOND
The Lufkin Daily News
Saturday, October 28, 2006
A federal judge this week sent applications to drill for oil and gas beneath the Big Thicket National Preserve back to the National Park Service for further environmental assessments.
The park service only owns Big Thicket's surface lands — not the underground mineral rights to the estimated 1.21 million barrels of oil, 70.11 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 1.02 million barrels of natural gas liquids. Between 1999-2004, the service approved 19 directionally-drilled wells, and it anticipates another 29 such wells being drilled during the next 20 years, according to court documents.
"The Big Thicket has more gas and oil activity than just about any other park in the service," said Brandt Mannchen, chairman of the Big Thicket Committee of Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter. The National Environmental Protection Act requires a detailed analysis "and NPS is not doing that," he said.
Federal Judge John D. Bates ordered the park service, which regulates private drilling on park service land, to fulfill requirements of the Act and other federal laws before reapproving applications to drill from locations 100 to 500 feet outside the preserve boundaries for: Comstock Collins No. 3 and Comstock Black Stone wells, beneath the preserve's Big Sandy Creek Unit; and the Union Gas Operating Co.'s wells, beneath the preserve's Neches Bottom/Jack Gore Baygall Unit.
Contrary to the Sierra Club's allegations, Bates said, "Administrative records demonstrate ... NPS did consider impacts on the Big Thicket National Preserve from surface drilling activities outside the preserve pursuant to its obligations under the Organic Act and NEPA."
The NPS Organic Act of 1916 mandates that the park service "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations," Bates ruled.
However, Bates agreed, the park service's ultimate conclusions for approving the proposed drilling weren't supported by their findings under the National Environmental Protection Act.
"That the drilling activities would not result in impairment of park resources and values ... or a significant impact on the human environment ... are not supported ...," Bates wrote.
Bates, who noted the parks service's frequent dismissal of impacts from pollution and disruption during construction activity, ordered the service to specifically identify possible impacts that drilling the wells could have on nearby water sources and the preserve.
The judge also did not agree with the park service's conclusion that increased noise levels over the next 10 years would ne negligible and localized, considering that the 40- to 90-decibel drilling rigs, extending up to 1,500 feet high, would drive wildlife from its habitat and interfere with the visitor's experience.