Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area attracts visitors to explore its huge rock shelters, hop a train into the river gorge, or ride horseback on wildflower trails. But the same ancient inland sea that formed the park’s sandstone arches also created the underground treasures of the Cumberland Plateau: coal, oil and natural gas.

More than 150 active oil and natural gas wells dot the park, which straddles the border between Tennessee and Kentucky. Hikers trekking through woods verdant with ferns may stumble across a line of big blue tanks or smaller sets of rusting pipes and pumps.

Big South Fork became a National Park property in 1991, long after many of those wells were drilled. Today, its Cumberland River gorge belongs to the Park Service all the way down. But private companies still own the mineral rights beneath 1,900 acres of the Cumberland Plateau portion of the park, mostly in Tennessee, said Tom Blount, chief of resource management for Big South Fork and the Obed Wild and Scenic River.

Interior Department Rules giving the Park Service more oversight over oil and gas extraction were enacted a year ago, after seven years of review and public comment. But they’re now in question in light of an executive order issued by President Donald Trump in March.

When the Trump administration called for federal agencies to review rules that “potentially burden” the development of energy resources, public attention focused on the possible rollback of stream protections and limits on greenhouse gases. But the review also stands to kill the recent update to the “9B” rules, which gave the National Park Service more ability to protect the environment at the surface–and pay for cleanups–when oil and gas wells pollute.

Any rollback could have a disproportionate impact on national park properties in Appalachia, where half the twelve parks with active wells are located, according to data gathered by the National Parks Conservation Association.

More parks may be affected in the future, however. About 40 Park Service properties, including iconic parks such as the Everglades in Florida and Grand Teton in Wyoming, have split ownership between surface and mineral rights. These could see drilling in the future as companies pursue oil in shale and other formations that are becoming more accessible with developments in technology, like fracking.

Appalachia is prominent among these parks, too. Oil and gas rights are privately owned at many Pennsylvania parks, as well as Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

National Park Service Property with Active Oil and Gas Wells in Appalachia
Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, TN
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, OH
Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, TN/VA/KY
Gauley River National Recreation Area, WV
New River Gorge National River, WV
Obed Wild and Scenic River, TN

“The disproportionate effect in Appalachia may be environmental,” said Nicholas Lund, senior manager for landscape conservation with the National Parks Conservation Association. “A lot of these parks are very dependent on a water body for the experience of the park,” he said, and reducing regulations could put that water quality at risk,. Lund expressed the most concern about Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park because it’s in the Marcellus Shale formation, which is attracting great interest from drilling companies.

The Department of the Interior released its review of energy-related regulations with a list of planned actions on October 24. The rules related to oil and gas extraction in national parks weren’t mentioned, but the door apparently remains open to overhauling them.

“It’s very frustrating that the Park Service has not been given assurance that these rules can move forward,” Lund said. “One way to look at that is that the Department of Interior has recognized (these rules) are not a burden and they are fine–but Interior won’t confirm that. It’s really unclear what will happen.”

National Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson said in an email last week that the Department of Interior is reviewing comments “on an ongoing basis.”

What’s at stake

The purpose of the 9B regulations is basically to prevent or reduce damage from oil and gas operations on the environment within national parks. Under the rules, operators must submit a plan for use of the site and for any potential cleanups.

Most of the time, drilling operations have few effects on their host parks, but the potential is there. A drilling mistake at the Obed Wild and Scenic River in 2002 caused an oil spill into White Creek and Clear Creek. Department of Interior documents show that was quickly followed by a large fire that followed both oiled paths, burning the forest, cracking boulders from the heat, and contaminating the creeks. Oil continued to seep into one creek for several years.

The cost for evaluating the impacts and restoration planning totaled about $770,000 – excluding the actual costs of putting out the fire and dealing with the well. The Park Service and the state of Tennessee estimated the dollar value of lost visitor paddling and fishing trips at $56,000.

There are only seven wells in the boundary of the Obed now, and no new ones can be drilled, Blount said.

That’s nothing compared to Big South Fork. The park was envisioned as a kind of Yellowstone of the East. In the 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed damming the river for a hydroelectric plant, but support fell behind protecting the area instead. The Corps was authorized to buy as much of the land and mineral rights as it could from willing buyers within a certain footprint, but was unable to stretch the funds to cover all that had been intended. As a result, there were initially 326 oil and gas sites in the park, Blount said. The Park Service has plugged 56 that were abandoned, he said, mostly using taxpayer money.

The rule update sought to reverse that situation by giving the Park Service more flexibility to determine the bond required of new operators–money to cover the cost of cleaning and capping abandoned wells. Previously, no more than $200,000 could be required per company per park, regardless of how many wells it owned.The bond can now be equal to the reasonable estimated cost of recovering the site when the well is closed.

Blount said the bond is paid into a state fund for capping problem wells, but there are thousands of these wells in Kentucky and Tennessee, far outstripping the money. In Tennessee the plugging bond is only $1,500, while plugging costs in the park can run up to $20,000 for a single well that has been abandoned so long that roads must be cut to reach it, Blount said.

Besides the bonding, the new rules also eliminated an exemption allowing 45 percent of the wells in the National Park System to operate without any Park Service oversight. They were grandfathered under the original 1978 rules. A large percentage of wells were grandfathered in Appalachian parks like Big South Fork, Cuyahoga and Gauley River National Recreation Area, according to a 2016 study by the City University of New York.

Lund said the Park Service surveyed the grandfathered wells before updating the rules. He said that about half the wells they saw had some problems associated with them, including odor, battery leaks or spills. In Big South Fork, “Some are very old, and when you come across them in the woods–it’s rather alarming. Things are rusty. There’s an oil sheen on the ground.”

There was “certainly” risk of spills and contaminating groundwater and runoff, he said.

Blount said he is not sure how many different well owners there are, although the number of grandfathered wells has dropped in recent years as they were sold to new owners. He’s seen little new drilling because the area isn’t highly productive, and oil and gas prices are low.

The update to the oil and gas rules allows the Park Service to issue citations to operators for small spills, and to charge fees for land disturbance when roads or pipelines are built.

Blount said the rules help the park plan with operators to reduce erosion and protect sensitive resources, which generally hasn’t been hard. “We’ve never run into anything we couldn’t mitigate,” he said.

ENREMA, which calls itself the biggest oil and gas well operator in Tennessee, owns the majority of the wells in Big South Fork, as well as some in Obed. According to its website, the company has using gas injection techniques to reactivate old wells and make them more productive. ENREMA officials declined to comment for this story.

Economic and political tug-of-war

Trump’s executive order focused on lost jobs and revenue from limiting oil and gas operations. But in many parts of Appalachia, the industry doesn’t necessarily support local jobs. There are between zero and 11 jobs in the oil and gas industry in the four Tennessee counties where most of the Big South Fork wells are located, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

Tourism, on the other hand, is an increasing focus for economic development in Appalachia. According to a 2016 National Park Service study of visitor spending, visitors to Big South Fork contributed about $20.7 million to the economy and supported 282 jobs. While visiting Cuyahoga, visitors spent about $70 million, supporting 1,085 jobs.

Four senators, including Republicans Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Rob Portman of Ohio, sent Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke a letter in May that called the new 9B regulations “common-sense standards” that protect American taxpayers as well as Big South Fork and Cuyahoga Valley.

But some other legislators have been hostile. Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, proposed a bill early this year that would have not only revoked the new rules, but forbidden NPS from ever updating the old ones.
Tennessee Republican Rep. Diane Black, who is now running for governor, co-sponsored the bill, which failed to gain traction.

A native of the mountains of North Carolina, Heather Duncan (@Duncanreporter) is a Knoxville-based reporter and storyteller. She has won top state, regional and national awards while writing for daily and alternative newspapers for almost 20 years.