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Tuesday, November 22,2011

GOP Senate candidate slams Wayne lease reversal

By Jim Phillips
Ohio Treasurer (and probable U.S. Senate candidate) Josh Mandel earlier this month slammed the head of the Wayne National Forest, for a decision to delay the auction of leases to more than 3,300 acres in the forest for oil-and-gas drilling.

Forest Supervisor Anne Carey told The Athens NEWS at the time that the agency had decided to put the auction, scheduled for Dec. 7 at a site in Virginia, on hold because of concerns about the environmental impacts of the "horizontal hydraulic fracturing" method of drilling.

This newer type of "fracking" – which involves vertical pipelines that are sunk thousands of feet underground and then curved to run horizontally through the targeted shale layer – is under intense debate across the country, including increasingly in eastern Ohio where the Utica shale layer is being targeted by oil and gas developers. With the much larger above-ground footprint and water needs of horizontal hydro-fracking, the potential benefits and dangers are much greater than traditional drilling operations.

However, geologists and oil and gas experts have expressed some skepticism over whether the Utica shale layer underlying Athens County is thick enough and has the sort of oil or gas resources that would be amenable to horizontal hydro-fracking. Until someone drills a well into the Utica shale layer here, that question will remain unanswered.

The Wayne lease sale had been part of a larger pending auction involving almost 21,000 acres of national forest land in Ohio, Louisiana and Mississippi.

When the Forest Service completed its last forest plan for the Wayne in 2006, Carey noted, "the (new fracking) technology wasn't on the horizon It's something we need to step back and look at."

Apparently after reading an account of the agency's decision in The Columbus Dispatch, Mandel – a Republican who's indicated he plans to run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown – issued a news release slamming "Washington bureaucrats" for standing in the way of the economic growth for Ohio that fracking could bring.

"A delay in drilling is a delay in job creation for the state of Ohio," Mandel is quoted in the release. "Ohioans deserve to reap the jobs and economic benefits of the abundant natural resources with which our state has been blessed. Only out-of-touch extremists would tell the out-of-work trucker or the newly graduated engineer that it's in their best interest for Ohio not to increase drilling."

Those who have officially expressed concern about allowing horizontal hydro-fracking near the Hocking River include the Athens City Council, the Athens County Commission and Ohio University. All have said they're worried about possible contamination of their water supplies.

Mandel's camp could not be reached for comment on the release. Carey reiterated Tuesday that the Wayne's decision to hold off on the auction was driven mainly by the fact that the existing forest plan does not assume that the newest hydro-fracking methods will be used on any new wells in the forest.

As for Mandel's emphasis on the potential economic impacts of fracking – which are by no means assured at this point, according to some industry experts – Carey said that her agency does take these into account to some extent.

"There is an economic component to the forest plan," she said. "But that was not a part of our rationale when we did this."

As for Mandel's attack on "Washington bureaucrats," Carey seemed mildly baffled. "My career with the Forest Service has been at the local level," she pointed out.

Carey readily acknowledged that on most of the acreage in the Wayne – which has expanded by buying up land from private owners – the rights to oil and gas are still owned by private parties, and not under the control of the Forest Service. This is true of about 59 percent of the Wayne's acreage, she estimated.

Of the remaining 41 percent – about 99,000 acres – Carey said, around 38,000 acres are already under lease for resource extraction, though the lease approvals apparently weren't for horizontal hydro-fracking drilling platforms.


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