Photo Caption: Wayne National Forest Supervisor Anne Carey, left, listens to the concerns of Tom Barnet of Millfield, following an anti-fracking rally at Wayne National Forest Headquarters in Nelsonville on May 23.
An announcement Monday by the supervisor of the Wayne National Forest, that the U.S. Forest Service will not rewrite the Wayne's forest management plan to take into account the potential impact of the horizontal hydraulic fracturing method of oil-and-gas drilling, prompted dismay from local anti-fracking activists.
One outspoken critic of the practice predicted that the decision by Wayne Supervisor Anne Carey will result in a lawsuit against the federal agency.
"We will have to litigate," declared Heather Cantino of the Athens County Fracking Action Network. "Her decision is criminal, and the only way we can fight it is through litigation."
Carey said Monday that her decision is not appealable.
In a prepared statement, Cantino – speaking on her own behalf – said she was "appalled and outraged" by the decision, which she alleged "shows total disregard not only for science but also for the community's knowledge, concerns and needs as expressed by dozens of official bodies and thousands of area residents, including the university's president, mayors, health professionals, farmers, clergy, judges, educators, scholars, parents, business owners, and tourism officials."
Carey announced Monday that she has signed a finding for a supplemental information report (SIR) that relates to horizontal deep-shale drilling on the Wayne. This report concluded that "there is no need to correct or amend" the six-year-old Wayne forest management plan, to take into account the impact of the relatively new horizontal fracking drilling technique, or to supplement the plan's environmental impact.
Essentially, the Forest Service seems to have concluded that the impacts of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, though it's widely acknowledged to be a more aggressive and high-volume method of extracting oil and gas than traditional vertical drilling methods (event those that employed fracking), are – in the words of the SIR – "not different in kind from the effects of conventional drilling."
Therefore, the agency has decided, it can deal with any new proposals for horizontally fracked wells the same way it has dealt with proposals for oil-and-gas drilling in the past.
In a telephonic news conference, Carey and Wayne spokesman Gary Chancey explained that the decision to not amend the forest plan relied heavily on information provided by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, in the form of a "Reasonably Foreseeable Development Scenario" (RFDS).
This document essentially predicts how much oil-and-gas development is likely to take place on the Wayne over the decade of 2008-2016. One of its findings is that there's potential for 13 new high-volume horizontal drilling well sites on the Wayne by 2016 – 10 on the forest's Marietta Unit, and three on the Athens Unit.
As Carey and Chancey pointed out, the pace of drilling on the Wayne for the specified 10-year-period has so far been running at only about 5 percent of what the BLM originally predicted. Therefore, the Forest Service has concluded, through 2016 the amount of acres in the Wayne disturbed by drilling probably won't exceed those assumed in the existing forest plan. Chancey also noted that "we have no (drilling) applications at this time."
"A big part of (Carey's) decision was based on the RFDF of the BLM," Chancey said.
One factor at work in this debate is that the uncertainty about southeast Ohio's Utica shale resources that's affected development on private land extends to public lands. While it's possible developable carbon resources underlie the Wayne forest, it's also possible that the resources aren't worth going after.
Asked how a six-year-old projection of drilling prospects would not need to be updated, based on the major recent developments in the oil-and-gas industry, Chancey said the BLM did look at the current conditions to update the document, but "they didn't see a need to significantly change the RFDS."
One of the main reasons for the Forest Service's review of the forest plan, though, was the fact that horizontal deep-shale drilling, using fracking, is a very different process from vertical drilling with fracking. For one thing, it takes from 40 to 90 times as much water; according to a table included in the SIRS, a vertically fracked well uses 44,000 to 85,000 gallons of water, while a horizontally fracked well requires from 3.5 million to 4 million. (A typical horizontal well employs one main vertical well shaft, with several pipes extending horizontally for thousands of feet in different directions.)
The BLM also appears to have been aware that the oil-and-gas market is changing drastically due in part to the potential of horizontal drilling. One change the agency made to its 2006 projections was to note that it now appears to be "economically feasible" to drill deep wells using horizontal hydraulic fracturing, where it wasn't before.
Last September, the BLM announced that it was going to auction more than 3,000 acres of the Wayne National Forest for oil and gas leases, as part of a larger three-state auction involving nearly 21,000 acres in Ohio, Louisiana and Mississippi.
In November, Carey announced that her agency was putting the sale on hold, to allow it to study the environmental impacts of horizontal drilling, and whether they necessitated any changes in the Wayne's forest plan.
How, then, did the Forest Service deduce that horizontal deep-shale drilling – not widely in use in 2006 – would have about the same impact as the older method?
Based on Carey and Chancey's comments during the news conference, it appears that the most weight was given to the amount of surface acreage likely to be affected.
Though a horizontal drilling well pad takes up more area than a pad for a vertical well – about three to five acres versus one acre, respectively – the horizontal wells can extract oil and gas from a larger underground area, up to 1,200 acres, and so fewer of them are required.
That, and the fact that the Forest Service doesn't expect the volume of development to be as high as the BLM projected in 2006, has led the agency to believe its current forest plan is adequate to deal with horizontal fracking on the Wayne.
Carey did acknowledge that horizontal fracking uses a great deal more water than vertical drilling, but said this water will not come from the Wayne itself, but will be brought in by drillers. She said the Forest Service did take water-quality issues into account, but that she believes if the fluids used in horizontal fracking are properly handled, this impact will not be greater than with older drilling methods.
"The flowback has to be in a closed system," she said.
She also pointed out that the current forest plan does have specific protections for water supplies (including the Hocking River), such as a ban on drilling in riparian areas.
MUCH OF THE CONCERN ABOUT potential horizontal drilling in the Wayne has focused on possible contamination of the Hocking, which supplies water to Athens and Ohio University. The city of Athens, the Athens County Commission and OU have all expressed official concern to the Forest Service about the possible dangers of fracking to their water source.
Carey also acknowledged that well pad for a horizontal fracking operation, while not taking up vastly more surface area than a vertical well pad, draws oil and gas from a much large area underground. However, she said, regulation of "down hole" operations are the purview of the BLM, not her agency.
Based on Carey's decision, the Forest Service officials said, they expect the BLM to resubmit its request to auction off leases to five parcels in the Wayne for oil-and-gas drilling, a request the Wayne is likely to grant.
Fracking critic Roxanne Groff, a former Athens County commissioner, called Carey's announcement "a grave disappointment." She alleged that the Wayne supervisor "purposefully and willfully disregarded all of the public concerns, and just took the company line (of the oil-and-gas industry)… Anne Carey has no idea if fracking is safe."
Groff also argued that Carey seems to be trying to shift responsibility for her decision onto BLM. "Anne Carey says, 'I have to do this,'" she said. "Well, BLM did not say she had to do it. BLM is not her boss. BLM does not tell the Forest Service what to do."
Cantino called Carey's view that horizontal fracking doesn't pose a much greater risk than older drilling methods "an absurd conclusion, and it's a cover for doing what the industry wants her to do."
Bernhard Debatin, an OU professor who has been active in anti-fracking activities, said he is "really puzzled" by the claim that horizontal fracking is comparable in its impact to older drilling methods, and doesn't require a revision to the Wayne Forest Plan.
"We know that (horizontal) fracking is a highly industrialized way of getting gas out of the earth, and it does have a huge impact on the surface," he maintained.
Noting the estimate that the Wayne Athens and Marietta units could get 13 new high-volume fracked wells in the next four years, Debatin suggested that he, unlike Carey and Chancey, doesn't see this as modest development.
"That alone is really a scandal," he said. "This is just unbelievable."
Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl said the concerns that led the city to send a letter to Carey expressing worries about the threat to the city's water supply haven't been allayed by her recent decision.
"Still, I'm concerned," Wiehl said. "I don't think anything's changed. They're talking about a 'few' wells, and only three of them in this area; but that's going to be a different story once they start multiplying."
Wiehl said he's also dubious about the view that horizontal fracking isn't greatly different in its potential impacts than other drilling methods.
"It is a different animal," he insisted.