Gas pipeline bills threaten national parks

The grandeur of our national parks includes nearly every conceivable environment our country has to offer, from the dense woodlands of Shenandoah to the desert expanses of Death Valley. These parks were established to ensure these landscapes are protected and “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” but thanks to legislation working through Congress now, it would be easier to puncture these landscapes with natural gas pipelines. 

Since the 1920s, pipeline companies have needed to get Congressional approval for a right-of-way across National Park Service lands to construct a pipeline. This is an important and time-tested provision that has allowed for reasonable development of our country’s natural gas resources while ensuring that the public gets a vote before allowing National Park land to be used to transport fossil fuels.  

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But three proposed bills—H.R. 2295 in the House of Representatives and S. 411 and S. 1196 in the Senate—would eliminate that long-standing provision. It would remove the requirement for Congressional approval – and with that the vote of the public -- before giving away park land for a gas pipeline, subjecting that power instead to the whims of whatever political party sits in the White House at that moment.  

These bills threaten our national parks, and they must be defeated. If any of them become law, it would open parks across the country to the risk of expanded development. Many pipelines are currently proposed in the East, including ones that would cross through or near Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (one of the top ten most-visited parks in the country), and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. But more than just Eastern parks are at risk: as gas production continues to increase out West, parks across California, Arizona and Utah could find themselves in the path of a new gas pipeline.  

Unmitigated placement of natural gas pipelines through national parks is inconsistent with the conservation mandate that created both the National Park System and the agency that protects them. Pipeline construction would result in acres of land and forest being permanently cleared. Transporting fossil fuels through our parks carries the risk of rupture and explosion, threatening park system resources and values, visitor experience, and human health and safety and would undermine the very purpose for which nationals parks were created. In the past 10 years there have been nearly 2,700 significant gas pipeline accidents, resulting in fires, explosions, casualties, and air and water pollution – that’s more than 20 accidents per month.  

It is no wonder that the National Park Service is firmly opposed to these bills, but there’s a simpler reason why Congress should reject these bills: they are solutions in search of a problem. Congressional approval has long worked to balance the protection of our national parks with expanded energy production, forcing all parties to carefully consider and decide whether the needs of a pipeline should outweigh the protections of a national park.  

Several pipelines have been approved through this process, done in a manner that minimizes their impact on the parks they traverse. We should not be so quick to give up this existing solution for a new problem. The decision to put a pipeline through a national park should be made by the representatives of the American public, not by a select few.  

Now is not the time for our representatives to relinquish this important protection for our national parks. These bills threatened the long-term protection of our national parks. Defeating them will ensure our nation’s most treasured natural landscapes can be enjoyed for generations to come.

Lund is manager of the Landscape Conservation Program at the National Parks Conservation Association.