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Approval of Park Drilling Angers Environmentalists

PADRE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE, Tex., Nov. 21 The Bush administration has approved the drilling of two new natural gas wells in this national park, which lies along the nation's longest stretch of undeveloped beach.

The approval, which has not yet been publicly announced and which follows a decision last spring to permit the drilling of an exploratory gas well in the park, ratchets up an environmental quarrel about the pace and wisdom of energy development on federal land. The Interior Department, which oversees the national parks, said the drilling would be done carefully to protect the park's 80-mile-long unspoiled beach and the 11 endangered species on the island.

The department points out that oil and gas exploration is not new on this barrier island. Sixty wells have been drilled here in the last 50 years, but the pace of drilling has fallen off sharply in the last two decades.

"There is nothing new here," said Eric Ruff, a spokesman for Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, "and what is new is better."

But national environmental groups, along with private organizations that monitor the federal parks, are outraged, pointing out that oil and gas exploration appeared to be phasing out in the park. The drilling has also upset experts on sea turtles who are working to protect the world's smallest and most endangered sea turtle, the Kemp's ridley. Padre Island is the principal American nesting ground for the turtles and the center of an intensive 20-year federal effort to save them from extinction.

"I am furious and dumbfounded that it would be necessary at this point to take such a chance with these turtles on Padre Island," said David W. Owens, director of the graduate program in marine biology at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and a member of the federally mandated international team charged with recovery of the turtle.

To accommodate construction of the two new wells, the National Park Service will allow heavy trucks to drive about 20 times a day over turtle nesting grounds. Park service officials said here that they would prefer that drilling and truck traffic not occur in the spring and early summer, the turtles' nesting season, when they lay their eggs in holes they dig in the sand. That is also when most of the park's 800,000 annual human visitors come to the beach.

But the Nov. 8 decision by the park service allows trucks the right to roll at any time of the year, though at slow speeds and in escorted convoys.

"We now have an administration that thinks running a couple of hundred 18-wheelers over nesting grounds of endangered sea turtles inside a national park is not a significant environmental impact," said Robert Wiygul, a lawyer for the Sierra Club, which sued the Interior Department last spring in an effort to stop the exploratory well.

Mr. Wiygul said the pending suit would be amended to include the new drilling.

Another Sierra Club lawyer, Sanjay Narayan, said the government appeared to be opening the door to an extensive and long-term gas operation in the park.

There is enough gas 80 billion cubic feet underneath the island for 15 more wells, which might take up to 30 years to drill, according to an estimate by the United States Geological Survey.

Officials from the park service and from the company doing the drilling, BNP Petroleum of Corpus Christi, Tex., declined to predict how many or when more wells might be drilled here. A senior Interior Department official said future drilling depended on how much gas was produced by the new wells (two wells drilled in the 1990's were dry holes), as well as whether profits justified the cost.

The decision to drill on Padre Island comes as the Bush administration, in order to reduce dependence on foreign oil, is encouraging drilling at more than 50 new sites on federal land in the lower 48 states, in addition to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

Critics of the president's energy policy describe the drilling here as a blatant example of what they say is a White House that is turning back decades of environmental progress in energy exploration in the West.

"This drilling is designed to enrich an oil company at the expense of the park, its visitors and its marine life,' said Randy Rasmussen, southwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, which advocates park preservation.

Similar complaints echoed this week across much of the West and not just from environmentalists.

In northwest New Mexico, three large ranchers who lease federal land have restricted the access of gas operators who lease mineral rights on the same land. The ranchers accused the operators of sloppy, frenzied and dangerous practices that were killing cattle and fouling land. In response to the limited access, several oil companies sued the ranchers this week to regain what they say is their rightful access to the land.