The federal government apparently plans to stick with a May 31 closing date for the comment period on a draft Environmental Assessment for leasing subsurface acreage in the Wayne National Forest’s Marietta Unit for oil and gas drilling.
Environmental groups opposing the plan had requested an extension of the comment period along with a public hearing.
In a public notice emailed on Tuesday, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) urged “interested members of the public to review and comment on the EA” by the end of the comment period on May 31.
The draft EA includes a finding of no significant environmental impact on leasing federal oil and gas resources on about 40,000 subsurface acres. Some 18,000 of those acres are being considered for leasing.
Four groups who oppose drilling on the national forest held a press conference at the U.S. Forest Service’s Wayne National Forest Headquarters southeast of Nelsonville on May 18, restating their opposition and requesting an extension of the comment period.
At the same time, groups representing owners of land adjoining the federal land in the National Forest’s Marietta Unit have been lobbying the BLM to move forward on the leasing plan. In many cases, these private landowners can’t lease their own property for drilling until the adjoining federal land has been opened for leasing.
The EA’s preliminary “finding of no significant impact” does not become official until after the draft EA issued by the BLM becomes final. After the comment period is over, pertinent federal officials will have to review public input before finalizing the EA and the related finding of no significant impact.
The EA in question only involves designated acreage on the Wayne’s Marietta Unit for which more than 50 oil-and-gas industry “expressions of interest” have been submitted, but not the Athens or Ironton units of the national forest.
In the yet-to-be-signed finding of no significant impact, BLM District Manager Dean Gettinger, states, “Based upon a review of the EA and supporting documents, I have determined that the proposed action (leasing of 18,494 acres in the Wayne’s Marietta Unit) is not a major federal action, and will not significantly affect the quality of the human environment, individually or cumulatively, with other actions in the general area.”
In general, the BLM noted in the EA that the preliminary act of leasing the national forest acreage doesn’t authorize “surface-disturbing activities.” Rather, the draft EA, if approved following the comment period, will “provide the lessee(s) exclusive rights to explore and develop oil and gas reserves on the lease.” In order to proceed with drilling, according to the BLM documents, the oil/gas company would have to apply for a drilling permit in line with federal requirements.
In their press conference/demonstration May 18 at the Wayne National Forest Headquarters near Nelsonville, representatives of four grassroots environmental groups, in addition to requesting an extension of the BLM’s comment period for the leasing program for oil and gas drilling on the forest’s Marietta Unit, asked for a public hearing on the draft EA.
The groups included the Athens County Fracking Action Network (ACFAN), which organized the event, the Buckeye Forest Council, Ohio Sierra Club and Torch Can Do.
In the news release announcing the event, Heather Cantino of ACFAN stated, “The BLM as a federal agency is charged with involving the public in such an important decision as opening our Forest to fracking (deep-shale horizontal hydraulic fracturing). Fracking was not in the 2006 Wayne National Forest Plan so must be fully evaluated with full public input, according to federal law. I’ve spent eight hours trying to decipher the BLM’s so-called Environmental Assessment (EA) and so far find it to be gobbledygook.”
She added, “It will take me many more hours to figure out if there’s any science in this document. So far I can’t find any.”
A public hearing is necessary, she argued in the release, so federal officials can explain the confusing information in the EA. “We need a public hearing so that the public can share its extensive knowledge of the issues and our various attempts at understanding these confusing and consequential documents – with one another, with our community, and with federal officials,” she said. “We must then have time to write meaningful comments.”
IN A BLOG POSTED ON May 24, Jackie Stewart of Energy In Depth Ohio, an oil and gas industry outreach group affiliated with the Independent Petroleum Association of America, categorized Cantino’s statements as “the same tired arguments” repeatedly advanced by “Keep-It-In-The-Ground” groups based in Athens.
“Interestingly, after claiming she ‘spent eight hours’ reading the EA and still can’t ‘decipher it,’ these groups somehow had plenty of time to pull together a media stunt outside of the WNF which included ‘holding a bag of barnyard manure which they likened to a draft Environmental Assessment in support of the leasing plan,’” Stewart wrote referring to the anti-fracking groups’ May 18 press conference at the WNF Headquarters.
Stewart added, “This could not be more ironic considering that these same groups were previously so disruptive at the last public hearing that BLM was forced to shut the meeting down early, negating the entire purpose for public input, and hijacking others from having the opportunity to engage.”
This was a reference to a public meeting held in Athens last November, during which critics of the leasing plan angrily complained that the set-up of the “open-house” style meeting precluded public commenting. Federal employees at that rowdy meeting did close it down early.
Stewart noted that the whole issue has been debated repeatedly, including in “several meetings” in 2011 and 2012.
“These exploits,” Stewart wrote referring to the May 18 press conference at the Wayne HQ, “prove that when sound science is not on your side, the activists have no choice but to revert to theatrics and emotional debates over the merits of oil and natural gas development. Hopefully the BLM will continue to make decisions regarding the Wayne National Forest based on science and listen to the interested parties who have actually taken the time to submit meaningful comments, discuss the process, and ask real questions about the pending draft Environmental Assessment over reckless activists who disregard civility and facts to achieve their agendas.”
ENVIRONMENTAL OPPONENTS, HOWEVER, insist that allowing leasing, and then fracking, on the Wayne National Forest poses a significant risk to natural resources and public health, both from the drilling itself and associated fracking-waste injection wells.
At the May 18 press conference, ACFAN member Roxanne Groff – also a Bern Township (Athens County) trustee – reiterated why the groups are demanding a public hearing and comment period extension.
“We must all insist on an extension of the public comment period and a public hearing, which the BLM is allowed to grant as their responsibility to all citizens for the most robust public involvement, and which is required by federal law for major federal actions that may significantly affect the forest and human environment.
“To say that fracking our (national) forest will not have significant impacts is preposterous,” she declared.”
Comments on the draft environmental assessment can be emailed to email@example.com; faxed to 414-297-4409, attn: Kurt Wadzinski; or mailed to BLM Northeastern States District, Attn: Kurt Wadzinski, Planning & Environmental Coordinator, 626 E. Wisconsin Ave., Suite 200, Milwaukee, WI 53202-4617.