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States weigh risks and benefits of drilling in parks

COLUMBUS, Ohio — State parks aren't just for hiking, camping and other recreation anymore. Increasingly, these lands are being used for oil and gas drilling as budget-strapped states seek new sources of revenue.

As they allow more energy exploration in state parks — in some cases by reversing previous bans — lawmakers are being met with resistance from environmentalists and park officials.

Opponents of the drilling say it raises troubling questions about acceptable uses of publicly shared land — even when new technology allows rigs positioned outside park boundaries to reach petroleum pockets deep beneath the parks by drilling horizontally.

Sean Logan, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said parks get 40 percent of their money from fees related to camping, boating, beach access and other recreational activities. If drilling affects the panoramas or the noise level, these other revenue sources could start suffering, he said.

Drilling is still barred in national parks. But the reversal of some state bans coincides with efforts to expand exploration in other previously off-limits locations: offshore in coastal states, near Aztec ruins in New Mexico and in some urban parks.

Arkansas has signed a lease allowing drilling to begin under Woolly Hollow State Park. Pennsylvania saw its first drilling on state park property this spring.

In July, a circuit judge in West Virginia ruled against the state environmental protection agency's attempt to block drilling under Chief Logan State Park. The first well in Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park in Carlsbad, N.M., was drilled in 2007.

To drill, roughly 2 acres are cleared of trees and vegetation. Gravel roads are also required to access drilling masts about 120 feet high. Producers have in some cases put mufflers on machinery and reduced other noises, but there are still trucks and other related sounds.

Backers say that wellheads and nature trails can coexist, in part because of new technology reduces the environmental footprint of drilling operations.

Some states have balked, with lawmakers in Kentucky and Ohio allowing state-park drilling proposals to die this year. Looking solely at proceeds from drilling, some say, is missing the bigger picture and the greater harm. Most state park directors still see drilling as contrary to their mission of leaving the land as pristine as possible, said Philip McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors.

Once that line is crossed, park officials say, there is no going back.

Right now, there is a huge glut of natural gas because of the recession and the new drilling techniques. Prices have plunged as a result. There is apprehension from some park directors that with any economic rebound, the pressure to drill on public lands will only grow stronger.

States weigh risks and benefits of drilling in parks 08/16/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 16, 2009 10:13pm]
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