By BILL HANNA
FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER
The National Park Service failed to take “a hard look” at the environmental impact of directional drilling on land adjacent to the Big Thicket Preserve in Southeast Texas, a federal judge ruled last week.
Judge John D. Bates said that the park service’s findings of no significant impact were “arbitrary and capricious” and that the agency didn’t provide supporting evidence for its conclusions.
“We hope it will insure more stringent rules, a little tighter regulation and that they’ll be a little more protective of the environment,” said Brandt Mannchen, chairman of the Big Thicket Committee for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.
“We hope this ruling won’t just affect the Big Thicket but the entire National Park System,” Mannchen said. “The Big Thicket is really the nexus of this issue because it has the most gas and drilling.”
Carol McCoy, chief of planning, evaluation and permitting in the park service’s Geologic Resources Division, said the agency is still reviewing the judge’s ruling. Officials will meet with park service lawyers within the next week to understand its implications.
However, McCoy said, the park service will probably “beef up” the analysis in its environmental impact studies. Changes officials make in their assessments will probably apply to all parks, McCoy said.
In 2005, the National Park Service announced a controversial plan to allow 40 wells to be drilled on the preserve over the next 15 to 20 years. But drilling will only be allowed on 241 of the park’s 97,000 acres. The judge’s ruling does not apply to those proposed well sites.
Nor did the judge overturn the park service’s November 2003 guidance on directional drilling, which stated that the agency’s authority was limited to drilling operations within the park.
Ron Tipton, senior vice president for programs for the National Parks Conservation Association, said the judge’s ruling is a hopeful sign for the Big Thicket.
The advocacy group issued a report in 2005 that said the Big Thicket faced threats from a number of areas, including development, land fragmentation, logging and drilling.
That report found nine wells operating within the park and 34 directional wells outside the preserve.
“We’re very pleased with the judge’s ruling,” Tipton said. “We felt like the park service has not been as assertive as it should be in addressing these issues.”
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698