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America's National Parks Threatened by Oil and Gas Development
America’s national parks are undoubtedly some of our “best ideas.” They are unique places across our country where public lands are preserved for their natural, cultural or historic value, as well as for the unique contributions they provide to local and regional economies and our national economic strength. This is why we have set aside national parks, national seashores, national memorials and other places managed by the National Park Service for future generations.
Even though we have protected these national park units to allow them to achieve their full environmental, cultural, historical and economic potential, threats to their preservation do arise. One of those threats today is the potential for future oil and gas development within national parks. We requested data from the National Park Service, which identified 42 park units where non-federal oil and gas drilling is or could be occurring in the future. Of these, 12 units currently have oil and gas operations within them, while 30 units may be threatened in the future with drilling. (see map below)
This data was compiled by the National Park Service by assessing three factors:
- The parks’ proximity to oil and gas resources
- Drilling activity already occurring near the parks’ boundaries
- The existence of non-federal mineral rights within the parks
These existing mineral rights are either inholdings—where an individual owns a piece of property completely surrounded by a park unit—or are non-federal subsurface mineral rights, which are frequently referred to as “split estate” where the federal government owns the surface of the land and a private entity owns the right to access the minerals below the ground. Private individuals or companies owned these mineral rights before the parks were created and have the legal right to access them.
Currently, any development activity on public lands, including national parks, must take place in accordance with various federal environmental laws to protect air, water, wildlife and public health. Additionally, operators must comply with National Park Service oil and gas regulations within park units.
But this time-tested process is now threatened by some politicians in Washington—influenced by the oil and gas industry—who propose to roll back or even completely eliminate federal oversight of energy on public lands in favor of more relaxed state regulations. This shift in management oversight of drilling in national parks would be more dangerous to maintaining the balance needed to develop our national parks to their full and varied potential, thereby placing the 42 areas highlighted above at an even greater risk.
Oil and gas drilling is a dirty business that, if done improperly, has the potential to do substantial harm to national parks and other public lands. Drilling involves not just the construction of rigs but also roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure. Toxic chemicals such as naphthalene and benzene are sometimes used in oil and gas drilling and production activities. There is also the equally real threat of spills, which are frequent both onshore and offshore. One estimate found that in North Dakota in 2011 alone there were more than a thousand spills of oil, wastewater or other drilling fluids.
The potential for future drilling within national parks is a real threat when seen through the lens of today’s political context. The American people deserve the right to have their say in the development of our national parks and public lands through their elected representatives in Washington. Rolling back federal regulations and having the states make these decisions would be exceedingly dangerous.
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
Jessica Goad is the Manager of Research and Outreach for the Center for American Progress’s Public Lands Project. Christy Goldfuss is the Public Lands Project Director at the Center.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Julia Conley
Climate campaigners on Friday expressed hope that policymakers who are stalling on taking decisive climate action would reconsider their stance in light of new warnings from an unlikely source: two economists at J.P. Morgan Chase.
Tensions are continuing to rise in Canada over a controversial pipeline project as protesters enter their 12th day blockading railways, demonstrating on streets and highways, and paralyzing the nation's rail system
Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
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