By COLIN MCDONALD
The Beaumont Enterprise
The approval process for drilling under the Big Thicket National Preserve is going to change in the wake of a court decision.
U.S. District Judge John D. Bates ruled in favor of the Sierra Club last week, saying the National Park Service is doing an inadequate job of documenting the environmental impacts of the slant drilling platforms that bore underneath the preserve.
"We are still trying to figure out what this means for us, and what we need to do to respond to the judge's order," said biologist Haigler "Dusty" Pate, who is in charge of the Big Thicket's oil and gas program.
Pate said he felt the park was doing an adequate job of looking at the impact from the drilling rigs, but that it may need to do a better job in documenting that work.
By federal law, the Park Service is required to document the impacts of these wells and allow the public time to comment before giving approval.
According to court records, between 1999 and 2004, 19 directional wells were drilled from outside the preserve to gain access to what the National Park Service estimates to be 1.21 million barrels of oil and 70.11 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Private parties own those mineral rights. The Park Service estimates oil companies will drill 15 to 20 wells during the next 20 years.
The Sierra Club sued the Parks Service for its vague description of the impacts from three drill sites as having "localized, short-term, minor to moderate adverse impacts," on the soundscape of the preserve and "localized, short- to long-term, negligible to minor, adverse impacts" on the air quality.
Attorney Tanya Sanerib, who argued for the Sierra Club, said she searched through all of the preserve's documentation to find out what that meant exactly and could not come up with an answer.
Under federal law, the Park Service has a role in the permitting of oil drilling operations outside of the preserve's boundaries if those operations will have an impact on the federal land. Further, the public has the right to review and comment on those operations before they are approved.
"How can they (the public) participate in the processi f the agency in the first place is not going to help?" Sanerib asked.
Bates agreed with Sanerib and wrote in his ruling that the Park Service used language that was "wholly uninformative" and gave conclusions with "little or no explanation of how NPS reached them."
Bates ordered the Park Service to go back and review the proposed wells that have received approval, but have not yet been drilled, and document specifically what their impacts will be. The Sierra Club points to the noise generated by the drilling and operation of the wells, the potential of a spill and fire and the lighting from the operation as impacts that need to be documented before approval is given.
"Even though this (court ruling) deals with three drilling sites, this problem has occurred with every drilling site in the past four years," said Brandt Mannchen, the chair of the Big Thicket Committee for the Sierra Club.
In a telephone conversation, Mannchen said he hoped the court ruling would change the Big Thicket's approach to evaluating drilling operations in and around the preserve, rather than simply approving the drilling as something with little to no impact.
Once those impacts are documented, the drilling proposal can be considered for approval.
Bates wrote that the National Environmental Policy Act, which the Sierra Club based a large part of it case on, "merely prohibits uniformed - rather than unwise - agency action."