Energy Development on Public Lands: The Next Four Years

Fracking drilling rig outside Canyonlands National Park

Fracking drilling rig outside Canyonlands National Park

On the eastern side of Glacier National Park, rugged peaks give way to high plains where the Glacier border meets Blackfeet tribal lands. On these lands next door to Glacier, oil and gas companies are in the early stages of exploration. There is little doubt that development on Blackfeet lands would be hugely beneficial to the mineral owners. Oil and gas development on this land, where grizzlies roam from tribal lands to national park lands without regard for lines drawn on a map, is an example of a larger conflict that is beginning to play out near national parks across the United States. Americans must decide now if we will develop oil and gas without consideration for our protected lands or if we will strike a balance and work to ensure Glacier and other parks offer the pristine beauty, protected wildlife, and historic value in 100 years as they do today.

In 2016, the National Park Service will celebrate its 100th anniversary. As President Obama decides where and how much oil and gas development to allow on federal lands during the next four years, NPCA hopes he will consider what legacy he wants to leave as the parks embark on their second century. Without sound regulation and planning, national parks could be worse off four years from now than they are today:

  • Oil and gas development adjacent to parks could block traditional migratory wildlife corridors, impacting park animal populations.
  • Ozone and other airborne pollution from oil and gas wells could harm plants, fish, wildlife, and even the health of park employees and visitors.
  • Park fishing could be degraded because of pollution and decreased water levels.
  • Flaring natural gas wells could outshine the stars and mar scenic views.
  • Industrial noise from drilling operations located too close to park boundaries could drown out birdsongs, howling wolves, and other natural sounds.

Requiring careful planning and common-sense regulations on federal lands adjacent to national parks could stop these impacts today and protect the parks in the future. The president will have significant opportunities over the next four years to ensure that the National Park System is protected from adjacent oil and gas development. His first opportunity relates to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages the 750 million acres of mineral resources underlying BLM, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Native American lands, including land adjacent to many national parks. BLM is in the process of finalizing a new rule regulating how oil and gas are drilled on some public lands. BLM’s proposal focuses on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Fracking is a drilling process where a combination of water, chemicals, and other materials are injected into the ground at extremely high pressure to fracture shale to release oil and natural gas. If the president requires BLM to implement strong regulations governing fracking on federal lands, NPCA believes that parks adjacent to oil and gas development on other federal lands could be better protected. Specifically, we recommend:

  1. BLM should inform the public and, when drilling in national park watersheds, the National Park Service, about what chemicals are being used in fracking operations before drilling begins (currently BLM proposes disclosure 30 days after drilling).
  2. BLM should require all post-drilling liquids to be contained in closed leak-proof containers. Currently, many drilling operators store these liquids in open pits near well sites that can leak and impact national parks’ air and water quality.
  3. BLM should limit the impact that fracking has on air quality. National parks near large concentrations of oil and gas development are seeing a significant increase in bad air quality days. This threatens park visitor health, decreases visibility from scenic park vistas, and can impact park resources. Specifically, BLM should work with the National Park Service to develop and implement air pollution mitigation strategies, such as limits on flaring and capture of fugitive gas, in order to protect national park air quality.
  4. BLM should formally collaborate with National Park Service staff to assure that large-scale oil and gas field development is protective of wildlife habitat and migration.
  5. BLM should fully and formally engage National Park Service staff when permitting oil and gas wells adjacent to national parks. This will allow BLM and the Park Service to work together to assure America’s national parks are protected.

Protecting America’s most treasured natural resources has been a presidential priority throughout the history of our nation. In spite of a raging Civil War, President Lincoln made preservation of what is now Yosemite National Park a priority. President Theodore Roosevelt, whose namesake national park is now threatened by the impacts of oil and gas development in North Dakota, set aside five national parks and 18 national monuments during his tenure. More recently, President George W. Bush created the world’s largest marine sanctuary in 2009. NPCA hopes President Obama and his administration will responsibly balance energy production with the protection of our natural heritage during the next four years, and by so doing, create an enduring legacy for the next century of the national parks.

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About the Author

Bart Melton is Yellowstone program manager for NPCA's Northern Rockies Regional Office