From: James Pinkerton, Houston Chronicle
Published December 28, 2004 12:00 AM

Corpus Christi, Texas, Firm to Drill for Gas in National Seaside Park's Dunes

Dec. 28--CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas -- With the winter sun gleaming on its full, tawny coat, a lone coyote pauses to watch human visitors as they examine a new gas well in a remote corner of Padre Island National Seashore.



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At the end of a caliche road more than a mile from the Gulf of Mexico, the well protrudes from the bulldozed earth in the middle of a 2-acre drilling pad.
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Sometime early next year, National Park Service rangers expect to be managing more than the coyote and the rich array of wildlife found on the nation's largest seaside park. They will also be closely overseeing the drilling of five more gas wells on the same pad a mile behind the dunes by BNP Petroleum Corp., a Corpus Christi firm.



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The coming derricks are a controversial sign of the times at federal parks, wildlife refuges, national forests and preserves in Texas, where federal officials say there is a growing wave of oil and gas exploration and production.



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"It's been accelerating some over the last few years," said Tim Bigler, district ranger at the 163,000-acre Sam Houston National Forest where there are 68 permitted oil and gas wells. "It's not been a real rush... but with the price of oil going up, you kind of expect it when that happens."



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The upswing in oil and gas production on federal lands in Texas is easier, in part, because the government does not always own the underlying mineral rights. But in some cases, the Texas General Land Office retains a share of such mineral rights, and those royalties go to the fund for Texas public schools.



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BNP is awaiting final permission to convoy oil derricks and other heavy equipment seven miles down the open beach to reach the drill site. BPN's drilling program was challenged by the Sierra Club, which lost a federal court battle over concerns the heavy oil trucks might crush sea turtle hatchlings.



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Meanwhile, two other oil companies are planning wells in the park this winter and spring.



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There are 292 oil and gas wells on the 675,830 combined acres of the five national forests and grasslands in Texas, including 14 added last fiscal year, a forest official said.



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At the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the last remaining wild flock of whooping cranes share their winter home with a cluster of natural gas wells that have been in operation since 1934 -- before the refuge existed. However, new wells on the refuge's adjacent Matagorda Island are under development by a Houston oil firm, refuge managers say.



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"Now, with gas prices being what they are, there are a lot of people interested in exploration -- that's what I think is driving it," said Charles Holbrook, project leader at the Aransas refuge.



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Two weeks ago, the National Park Service issued an oil and gas plan for the 97,000-acre Big Thicket National Preserve that opens up 59 percent of the land to oil exploration and 41,800 acres to drilling and production. The long, acrimonious effort to preserve parts of a once-vast expanse of pine forest in East Texas, known as the Big Thicket, was one of the leading environmental battles of modern Texas history.



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And while the Park Service is legally required to allow private leaseholders access to the park and preserves to develop their mineral rights, it also is obligated to protect the land and wildlife.



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"In a perfect world, probably we wouldn't want any drilling here at all," said Padre Seashore park ranger Juan Rodriguez. "But we have no choice because we don't own the subsurface mineral rights. ... We have to grant them (private leaseholders) the right to explore."



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In some cases, parks were created after a compromise was reached between conservationists and those who did not want to see curtailment of oil and gas production, a traditional cornerstone of the Texas economy.



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And today, many Texas officials remain strong advocates of increased drilling on federal lands, including national parks, while environmental groups and park watchdogs want to see drilling in parks permanently halted.



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"We have terrible, looming problems with hydrocarbons" shortages, insists Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson. "We need to do everything -- find renewables (energy sources) and do conservation. We need maximum exploration, find sources of clean coal, do coal gasification, import more liquid natural gas, and develop high-tech stuff like hydrogen fuel cells."



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Patterson scoffed at proposals for a federal buyout of the private mineral rights beneath Padre Island.



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"Why waste the tax dollars, and forego the production, to correct an ill that doesn't exist?" he asked.



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Patterson noted that the Park Service's environmental assessment predicts that BNP's gas production, while long-term, would result in minimal environmental damage to a remote area in the 66-mile-long park.



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Meanwhile, he estimates the state's Permanent School Fund over the years may earn up to $104 million in royalties from its share of gas production from gas wells on Padre Island. These funds will add to the $19 billion in the Permanent School Fund, royalties from 13 million acres where the state retains an interest in the mineral rights, land office officials said.



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Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials estimate 40 percent of the state's 120 parks have, or had at one time, oil and gas production on them, earning the department royalties of $817,000 last year. And 19 of the 51 state wildlife management areas have, or had, petroleum operations.



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But conservationists counter the private oil leases on Padre Island, and other national parks and preserves, should be bought out by the federal government, and drilling permanently halted.



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Ron Tipton, senior vice president of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, said there are only a "very few" national parks or wildlife areas where oil and gas production is allowed. In the majority of the 59 national parks and 330 other National Park Service units, the federal government owns the mineral rights and does not allow drilling, Tipton said.



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"It was the right thing to do to create these park units with the existing (private) mineral rights, but over time we need to acquire and extinguish those rights," said Tipton, who is based at the group's Washington headquarters. "In the meantime, we need to closely regulate the (drilling) activity."



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Tipton noted the Bush administration has agreed to a proposed $120 million buyout of private mineral rights in the Big Cypress National Preserve, a 720,000-acre tract next to the Everglades National Park in Florida. The buyout would not halt production of the preserve's nine aging oil wells -- in operation since the 1970s -- but prevent future exploration and production of the estimated 40 million barrels of oil beneath the preserve.


"It's the same issue, the same resource, the same threats to the environment that we have in Padre Island," Tipton said of Big Cypress. "And I can argue it's more acute because there are endangered turtles (on Padre) and there aren't in Florida."



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The nestings of sea turtles is part of the Sierra Club's legal challenge to the drilling on Padre, since hatchlings of the endangered Kemp's ridley and other species must cross the beach to reach the Gulf.



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In August 2003, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's dismissal of the case, noting there wasn't a single documented case of a Kemp's ridley being crushed by beach traffic in 20 years of vehicle access in the park.



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"What we need is a national energy plan that emphasizes renewable energy like wind, and ... protects our parks and refuges from unnecessary drilling," said Chris Wilhite, a Sierra Club representative in Austin.



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In November, the Sierra Club filed a federal suit against the National Park Service after the agency streamlined the permit process for directional drilling from outside the Big Thicket and other parks. The lawsuit is pending.



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Houston-based Davis Brothers Inc. threatened to sue the Park Service in 2001 over the agency's requirement of a 60-day public comment period, a rule they said jeopardized their plans to drill for oil from private land outside the Texas park.


In a state with a relatively small percentage of parks and other public lands, the Sierra Club argues there is little justification for bulldozing drilling pads and installing flame towers in undisturbed natural areas.



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"There's been an incredible amount of drilling in federal lands in Texas," said Wilhite, noting that 97 percent of the state is privately owned. "That (remaining) 3 percent is public land, and it's not a whole lot to ask to leave it alone -- for it to be for nature and to leave it for people to enjoy nature."



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But while environmentalists slug it out with the oil companies, the issue of drilling on Padre Island is hardly a blip on the radar screen in nearby Corpus Christi.



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In South Texas, oil and gas exploration are not only a historical legacy, but an important source of income in many communities. The industry supplies good-paying jobs from the gas fields outside Laredo to a ring of refineries, oil field equipment depots and shipyards around Corpus Christi.



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"The oil and gas industry has a significant impact on the Corpus Christi economy," notes Tom Carter, the head of the Chamber of Commerce who had not heard of the drilling on Padre Island. "We love our refineries, we don't want them to close, we want to see them grow.



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"That's the nature of South Texas."



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Charles Holbrook, who helps manage the 115,000-acre Aransas refugee where the whooping cranes nest, is more concerned about a barge accident on the intracoastal canal than possible pollution from the six gas wells operated by ConocoPhillips oil company on the refuge.



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"Given the choice, I would not put oil and gas production on a national wildlife refuge -- that's not the purpose for which they were established," Holbrook said. "But I'm very fortunate we do have a good operator in the way they conduct their oil and gas operations."



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Arlene Wimer, the South Padre park's environmental specialist, said BNP acquired the assets of another oil company that abandoned an earlier gas well and is cleaning up the site, and others.



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The company also has agreed to hire trained turtle monitors, riding ATVs ahead of and behind convoys of heavy trucks, during the critical April to June turtle nesting season, Wimer said. Twenty heavy trucks a day, traveling at 15 mph and only during daylight, will be allowed down the beach and a road grader will follow to smooth out any turtle-stopping ruts.



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"They have been good tenants, they have come through," Wimer said, referring to the Park Service's requests to modify operations at the existing well.



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PADRE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE



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--History: created in 1962 to preserve 68 miles of Padre Island, from Nueces County to Port Mansfield



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--Size: 130,473 acres; drilling acreage required for six wells is 3.5 acres
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--Mineral worth: estimated 80 billion cubic feet of natural gas worth $560 million at today's market prices
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--Needs: 16 future wells needed to extract all gas would require another 242 acres of park land



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--Wild life: 322 species of birds, 19 amphibians and reptiles, eight mammals and five species of sea turtle



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Source: National Park Service



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