A Time to Drill

Last year the feds went toe-to-toe with environmentalists over allowing natural-gas drilling on Padre Island, but neither side has scored a knockout. Here's what to expect in the next few rounds.

So who threw the first punch in this fight?

The Bush administration. A year ago, citing the growing demand for natural gas and the need for the U.S. to become less dependent on foreign energy supplies, the Department of the Interior approved a permit allowing BNP Petroleum, of Corpus Christi, to drill an exploratory natural-gas well inside the Padre Island National Seashore (PINS). In November, after BNP struck a reserve fifteen miles from park headquarters, the Interior Department agreed to let it drill two additional wells.

Since when is drilling legal on Padre Island?

Since forever. In fact, oil and gas exploration is legal throughout the national park system (nearly seven hundred oil and gas wells exist in thirteen other parks). In the case of PINS, when the federal government began acquiring its 160,000 acres in 1962, it limited the purchase to surface lands, leaving oil and gas rights in the hands of the state and private owners. Any company can apply for a drilling permit, but approval must also be granted by the National Park Service, which is overseen by the Interior Department. Nineteen wells have been drilled on Padre since 1979, but only two in the nineties, and both were dry holes.

Okay. But if drilling has always been legal, how can environmentalists fight this?

By playing every green group's favorite trump card: suing under the Endangered Species Act. Few roads exist inside PINS, and to access its drilling sites, BNP must send eighteen-wheelers down the beach, which, from April through July, is prime nesting habitat for endangered Kemp's ridley turtles. Roughly five thousand female turtles exist, and critics of drilling argue that the giant oil company trucks will crush both turtles and their nests. Using this argument, the Sierra Club filed suit against the Interior Department in April.

How is BNP addressing the Sierra Club's concerns?

BNP spokespeople argue that their trucks are no more harmful to the turtles than the thousands of four-wheel-drive enthusiasts who roam the beach already each summer. Besides, they say the existing regulations governing their beach access, which include requiring drilling trucks to maintain a 15-mile-per-hour speed limit and to travel in caravans led by trained turtle spotters, will adequately protect wildlife.

So how does all of this affect Texans?

First, the bad news: Increased drilling will unquestionably have a negative impact on tourism. Nearly 800,000 visitors flock to PINS each year, and no matter how environmentally and visually friendly BNP's operation is (it will use quieter, diesel- and electric-powered rigs painted the color of their surroundings), nothing spoils a beach picnic quite like a rumbling caravan of industrial truck traffic. On the other hand, there's a significant financial carrot being dangled by the pro-drilling camp. Because BNP's proposed new wells will be on state-owned reserves, state law stipulates that between 20 and 25 percent of the revenue the wells generate must go to Texas' Permanent School Fund. And considering the state's $9 billion budget shortfall, the estimated 80 billion cubic feet of gas sitting untouched beneath the island could represent an irresistible revenue source.

What happens next?

Don't expect the feds to purchase Padre Island's oil and natural-gas rights like they did last summer for Big Cypress National Preserve, in Florida. The move to protect the preserve was largely viewed as a political maneuver (read: a chance for President Bush to boost brother Jeb's 2002 reelection efforts), and the administration has been otherwise adamant about the need to tap our existing energy supplies. A compromise that involves limiting drilling trucks during turtle nesting season or cutting a road down the island away from the beach might appease some critics, but remember, there's an endangered species involved, and the Sierra Club doesn't typically go down without a fight. Expect this issue to drag on in the courts, where a judge will issue a final TKO.

Tags: POLITICS

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