Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Who Owns the Land Under the Water?

I must admit, the more I research the topic the more confused I get. Who owns the land under the water? That turns out to be a real corker of a question.

I can understand how if a reservoir flooded valley where they used to have surveyed lots, you can actually "own" some submerged lands. Down here on the coast it is much, much more different.

In theory the Texas General Land Office "owns" all submerged lands along the coastline, acting as a public steward for the good people of Texas. So you can't own a single spot of land below the GLO mean high waater mark, right?

Wrong. One can actually have deed and title to the land, which down here is quite useful if you have mineral rights too. You'd be surprised. Heck, the Town of Port Isabel tried to annex submerged land to say it was "contiguous" with an island five miles away. All kinds of people own that land we're walking on. I wouldn't be surpised if the Nicholas Balli family really owned it all (the Balli family was original settlers and claimed they got swindled by a carpet bagger).

Navigation districts, now that's a fine one too. I checked around and yes, both local districts do in fact own land under the water, some of it quite deep. Last I checked, they owned the land west of the Dolphin Cove Oyster Bar in Isla Blanca Park. Matter of fact, one of the recommendations from the Bay Area Task Force would be to annex Tomplins Channel on the bayside.

The GLO really has title to most all of coastal Texas since the the 1890's, mainly for auctioning off oil and gas extraction acreage. They had the original Spanish grants, the Balli Land, and everying down since then. It is true that in most cases ownership is simple, meaning nobody but the State, but in other cases up to six different kinds of entities can own the same submerged land at the same time. It is a true lawyer's heaven.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Gas Rigs Grow on Horizon

Photo credit: Amazing Walter - "that whistle is loud!"

The oil and gas industry off South Padre Island is experiencing a small boom in wildcatters. I did some research after sitting on the beach and watching a large crewboat head to another rig on the horizon. Sure enough, I found out that Prime Offshore (formerly F.W. Oil) was drilling on a new lease block off Mansfield Pass (THE 202 jack-up rig). You can find out more on the offshore activity at Rigzone. On a clear night you can see the platforms to the East with their very intense lights. The photo here is a completed well-head after the drilling was completed.

I bring up this issue because of several factors, such as clean beaches, good fishing, and economic development. In now way do I mean that the rigs are “bad” although I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a little more tar on the beach. Maybe we should start from the top.

The US Department of the Interior regulates the offshore oil and gas industry through its Minerals Management Service (MMS). The lands are leased to operators to construct oil & gas gathering facilities, including pipelines. These leases are negotiated every year or so based on an auction system. Since the lease blocks are outside the nine nautical mile state limit, they are approved at the federal level and we are not really consulted at all. In fact, most Islanders were surprised to learn that MMS had approved Prime Offshore to operate in lease blocks 1145 and 1166, which is fairly close to Brazos Santiagos Pass – maybe 12 miles out to sea. Why didn’t anybody ask us?

The reason why is because the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for offshore oil & gas drilling was conducted years ago, so no further reviews are needed in the Western Gulf of Mexico (GOM). Should the eastern GOM be allowed to have drilling, a formal EIS would probably have to be conducted. The western GOM is roughly bounded by a line from the Rio Grande to Key West, with the western part being straight south of the Florida-Alabama state line.

Due to the pipeline system, however, the area offshore from South Padre Island was never developed. These pipes can be up to about 22 inches around and carry natural gas, crude oil, and gas condensate. Prime Offshore, which was really just two guys in an office, partnered up with GE and put in a 100 million dollar pipeline. Thus the land off our neck of the woods was no longer “stranded” with regard to hydrocarbon deposits. Using the new pipeline, in 2005 Prime took in over a quarter million barrels of crude and about four million cubic feet of natural gas, yielding about 40 million dollars – not bad for just one rig online. In 2006 another well was completed and they are drilling on a third lease to be completed in early 2007.

Let me start with economic impact. The Todco rig was refurbished at Amfels Shipyard in Brownsville. One or two crewboats is docked at Port Isabel. New federal legislation could allow Texas and other states to share the royalty payments from the offshore leases, which were intended to help with hurricane and coastal erosion efforts. If the operators of planned oil and gas structures can pay for a 100 million dollar pipeline in a matter of several years, we’re talking some serious direct and indirect economic impact here.

As to fishing, basically out part of the GOM is a desert with nothing but some shrimp. The reefs are few, such as Seabree Banks being 17 miles out; the canyons to really deep 100 fathom waters are out maybe 80 miles at sea. The oil & gas structures are famous for holding large numbers of fish. Taken together with a few rigs and the Texas Clipper, fishing could be revitalized by creating new artificial reefs. Such new reefs could take the pressure off over-fished areas such as Seabree.

Finally, let’s talk tar on the beach. We’ve all seen a little more asphalt chips on the beach lately, some of which is natural and some comes from old deposits that fell off older oil & gas rigs. Those chips indicate oil fouling of at least one to two years old. Fresh oil is black oil, the kind you step in and need some serious cleaner to get off your feet. Interestingly, black oil blobs used to be more common over a decade ago, especially after the Ixtoc explosion in Campeche Bay, Mexico. Heavy oil will tend to turn brownish and sink, whereas light oil will float with a sheen but usually evaporates in a few days.

The question as to whether these new rigs – there are four more in the planning stages – could increase oil releases and put more “goo” on the beach is complex. The risks are higher now that drilling and production is underway, although the industry is heavily regulated. One of the main jobs for that crew boat is to deliver supplies and take on drilling or production wastes which back in old days would have been dumped overboard without question. I have confidence that the industry can be safe. The economic impact of even having a small oil release get on SPI beaches, however, would be astronomical.

If you see any oil fouling on the beach please call the Spills Hotline at 1-800-832-8224.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Snapper Snafu

That's my son there with a nice catch of the day, of course with his being the biggest and mostest. That picture might soon not be possible, as the NOAA proposes rules saying you can only catch two a day. As a nice touch NOAA reduced the minimum size from 15 to 13 inches, which would be even wimpier than Dad's little catch there.

If you want to comment you have until January 26. Way down at the bottom of the Notice you can even find an easy email address to share your thoughts. Type it exactly as it says, though.

If I were to comment I would request special consideration of a lower Texas management area where limits would be retained at 5/15 (five red snappers over fifteen inches) but the annual poundage not exceed certain annual possession or poundage limits (the latter called a quota system). The offshore area between Corpus Christi and South Padre Island is certainly different from the rest of the Gulf coast and deserves some special consideration in terms of gathering data, both the snapper bio-mass models and the historical “take.” We do not make any bones about the red snapper being over-fished. However, facts used in the determination to restrict red snapper fishing seem more based upon data collected between Cortez, Florida and Galveston, Texas. I am sure if there was “real” data that us local SPI folks could understand it and follow the logic we would readily accept all the consequences.

Right now we simply can’t.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Annexation War Over

According to the Port Isabel Press the battle over annexing large tracts of land on South Padre Island is over. Port Isabel wrote checks payable in the amount of about $186,000 each to SPI and the Pinnel Trust, which owns a bunch of land on the north side of town. In addition, Port Isabel council took action to change their maps.

For those not up on the history, Port Isabel is on the mainland and was very interested in extending its boundaries to the lucrative South Padre market, which is booming and could generate some serious tax income for their town. In a series of ordinances, it advanced its claim to the land across the bay, a mile at a time until it encompassed a good part of the land north and south of SPI. The Island and Pinnel protested because (1) over-water annexation was unconstitutional and (2) because Pinnel wanted to be annexed by SPI, not Port Isabel (consistent with ETJ practices for extra-territorial jurisdiction in the Texas Constitution). Port Isabel lost in the first case and then lost on an appeal.

At first, SPI town leaders seemed to be willing to forgive their share of the winnings, which were all court filing and lawyer costs, since the accent should be on regional cooperation and planning rather than fighting all the time. Such a special agreement would forgive the payment as long as Port Isabel never again attempted such an annexing scheme. However, popular sentiment was against this notion and the demand for payment remained as part of the court settlement, by default.

While regional cooperation is a laudible ideal, Port Isabel did something patently unconstitutional, at least according to a trial judge and an appellate judge. I recall the shock and dismay of seeing the signs saying "Port Isabel City Limits" on our Island. It was no small wonder the local kids used to whack those signs as much as they could. At least all that is history now and we can move forward. Watch for no small amount of sparks over a second, proposed Port Isabel to SPI causeway - it should have some good viewing potential. /Sam

Sunday, September 10, 2006

SPI Gas Company

I haven't decided quite what to do here other than being an Gemini with a very conservative side and a wilder liberal side, well, this one just might be wilder.

Back in the 1960's there was a place called the Vulcan Gas Company, a rocking place on Congress Aveue in Austin. It went bankrupt in 1969 and became 'Waterloo Hamburgers' and the hippie investors then put their money in the future Armadillo Heaquarters. I got down to Austin for the burgers and the Armaldillo in 1976, same year as my wife.

There is "SPI Gas Company" because I checked. In fact there is no natural gas on South Padre Island but a few vendors do sell propane. I just thought it was a neat name.

And why, should you ask, why? Well, there is a whole bunch of gas and other resources that the industry wants to mine out there, including tourists and natural gas from drill wells. OK, I didn't say that right because tourists aren;t exactly "mined" but after a while, you'll see what I mean. At any rate, nobody, not a single person, caught it that lots of natural gas wells would be driled on our part of South Padre Island. If you get through the hectic stuff, sometimes I'll have some OK thoughts about why that needs to be addressed.