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Environmental Group Sues Over Relaxed Oil Drilling Rules

The Bush administration was accused Wednesday of buckling under pressure from Houston-based Davis Brothers Inc. when it changed rules for directional drilling of oil and gas reserves under Big Thicket and other national parks.

Nov. 18—AUSTIN, Texas — The Bush administration was accused Wednesday of buckling under pressure from Houston-based Davis Brothers Inc. when it changed rules for directional drilling of oil and gas reserves under Big Thicket and other national parks.

Directional drilling allows oil and gas operators to set up rigs on privately owned land adjacent to federally protected land and drill diagonally to tap reserves underneath the parks.

The Sierra Club filed a federal lawsuit in Washington, D.C., against National Park Service Director Fran Mainella and Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

The lawsuit alleges that the Park Service responded to pressure from Davis Brothers by quietly weakening protections governing drilling of privately owned mineral reserves underneath units of the national park system.

A Park Service official said the drilling provision was intended to encourage operators to access their privately owned minerals from outside the park.

"The alternative is to drill in the park," said David Shaver, chief of geologic resources for the Park Service.

Correspondence released by the Sierra Club showed that Ross Davis threatened to sue the Park Service in 2001 if it did not make it easier for Davis Brothers to obtain a waiver to drill a well on private land outside Big Thicket National Preserve in East Texas.

Davis did not return two phone calls seeking comment.

Shaver said the agency "has not given any oil company special treatment or changed any policy regarding oil and gas operations under parks."

He said the regulatory change the Sierra Club sued over was merely "additional field guidance on how the existing regulations applied to directional drilling."

Longstanding federal policy had been to require directional oil and gas drillers to demonstrate that their operations would not impair wildlife and resources.

Davis complained in a letter to a Big Thicket official that material required to obtain a waiver for directional drilling had been increased substantially since the waiver process was implemented in 1985.

Davis said his company could lose drilling rights unless the process was changed to eliminate a 60-day public comment period after an environmental assessment was filed.

Two months later a Park Service official wrote Davis that it would "streamline public review" to 15 days provided "internal scoping indicates there are no controversial issues or substantive impacts."

The lawsuit said the new regulations allow the Park Service to exempt well operators from filing detailed information about the proposed drilling and environmental impact.

It alleges that the regulatory change was implemented illegally without required public notice and comment.

The Sierra Club asks the court to set aside the regulation and all exemptions granted under it.

"It's a very sad situation when the stewards of public land are in fact cutting out the public," said Brandt Mannchen, chairman of the Sierra Club's Lone Star chapter.

Since 2002, the Park Service has approved or is in the process of approving 19 wells near Big Thicket, Mannchen said.

He said the drilling could cause air and water pollution as well as sink land in the park.

Shaver said Davis Brothers has voluntarily incorporated additional environmental mitigation measures on its operations adjacent to the park.

Letters between Davis and various federal officials were obtained by the Sierra Club under the federal Freedom of Information Act and were released in conjunction with the lawsuit.

On Oct. 31, 2001, Davis wrote Richard Peterson, an official with Big Thicket National Preserve, threatening to file a lawsuit unless the government eased its policy on directional drilling.

"Multiple legal arguments can be put forth which would suggest that (Big Thicket) has bootstrapped and overextended its authority to regulate the proposed drilling activity," Davis wrote.

Davis said the government's actions of "effectively discouraging the production of domestic oil and gas reserves is counterproductive and in opposition to the current dire need of the United States for stable secure energy supplies."

He said in the letter that the process to obtain a waiver was too time-consuming and that 11 waivers granted since 1985 had not posed "a significant threat of damage to park resources."

On Dec. 20, 2001, Karen Wade, director of the Intermountain Regional Office of the Park Service, wrote Davis.

"We very much appreciate your concerns and share your belief that it is in the mutual interest of (the Park Service) and the oil and gas producers to encourage off-park directional drilling," Wade wrote.

"While we were already in the process of reviewing the application of the Part 9B regulations, your letters helped to focus the issues for us and to expedite our consideration of the issues that you are now raising."

Mannchen said, "These documents show that the Bush administration bent over backwards to help its friends in the oil and gas industry even when the facts showed that its policy would harm national parks."

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© 2004, Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.