Scheduled auctions of oil and gas leases for two small Wayne National Forest parcels northeast of Marietta have been suspended, as a result of a protest filed Aug. 16 by several national, regional and local environmental groups.
Heather Cantino, steering committee chair for one of those groups, the Athens County Fracking Action Network, in an email Friday welcomed the news.
However, she emphasized that it “does not mean the community and our climate are safe from Wayne fracking. Other Wayne leases have gone through, and permits to drill are being issued. The Wayne has yet to comply with National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements to take a hard look at impacts of fracking, which citizens have been asking for since 2011.”
Indeed, since December 2016, at least four auctions for mineral leases on the Wayne National Forest have taken place. Yet, neither the federal BLM nor the U.S. Forest Service have issued permits for drilling on those leased parcels.
Landowner and oil and gas industry groups have blamed environmental protests and legal actions for the delays in permitting. True to form, last week they quickly seized upon BLM’s decision to suspend the Sept. 20 scheduled auction for two parcels totaling 75 acres as another instance of needless bureaucratic red tape blocking private land owners’ efforts to legally develop oil and gas resources that they own adjacent to national forest land.
In response to intense lobbying efforts by these groups, legislation recently was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives “to reduce bureaucratic entanglement in the permitting process (for drilling on federal lands), specifically in areas where environmental impacts have been identified and abated.”
That wording comes from an op-ed that appeared Friday in TheHill.com written by Jerry Simmons, executive director of the National Association of Royalty Owners (NARO), which represents oil and gas royalty owners’ interests. The opinion piece specifically mentioned delays in federal permitting for leases already awarded for oil and gas drilling in the Wayne National Forest’s Marietta Unit.
Davida Carnahan, public affairs specialist for the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which handles leasing of federal mineral rights, confirmed Friday that a protest was filed in mid-August against two mineral leases set for a Sept. 20 competitive sale.
“The BLM voluntarily suspended them from the September sale for further administrative review, and may schedule them to be offered at a later sale date,” she said.
Carnahan provided an online linkto the protest in question, filed Aug. 16 by the Center for Biological Diversity (Oakland, California), the Sierra Club (also in Oakland), the Ohio Environmental Council, Heartwood (Bloomington, Indiana), ACFAN in Athens, the Buckeye Environmental Network (chaired by former Athens County Commssioner Roxanne Groff and based in Amesville), and Keep Wayne Wild (Columbus).
These are most of the same groups that have filed repeated official protests against leasing for eventual fracking operations in the Wayne National Forest, and in May 2017 upped the ante with a lawsuit against the BLM in federal court in Columbus.
In one of the protest actions, organized by SproutTogether, a California based grassroots environmental organization, representatives of the groups, including two environmental activists, Andrea Reik and Roxanne Groff, from Athens, in November 2016 traveled to Washington, D.C., and hand-delivered a protest petition signed by more than 92,000 people asking BLM to stop its first planned lease auction for oil and gas rights in the Wayne National Forest.
The latest protest repeats the reasoning cited previously by leasing opponents: “Neither the BLM nor the U.S. Forest Service have adequately assessed the potential environmental effects associated with the leasing and development of the parcels listed above, nor of the 40,000 acres of the Wayne National Forest BLM proposed to lease in its 2016 environmental assessment.”
This referred to the EA document signed by Dean Gettinger, district manager of the Northeastern States District of the BLM, in October 2016 that found no significant impact for drilling on 40,000 acres in the Marietta Unit of the Wayne National Forest, northeast of Marietta. At that point, oil and gas companies had filed expressions of interest to drill for natural gas on 18,000 of those acres.
Since then, several mineral rights lease auctions have taken place, with more than 2,200 acres leased to private companies, including one in March 2017 in which companies entered bids totaling $5.2 million for leases allowing them to explore and potentially drill for oil and gas on 1,180 acres of land in the Wayne forest. All of the land is located in Monroe County.
Another lease auction took place last March for two parcels totaling 345 acres, though The NEWSat our press deadline couldn’t find details on how that sale fared.
In an article last week in the Marietta Times, Wendy Park, a senior lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, explained the reasoning behind her group and others’ protest of any further mineral lease sales. She cited fracking’s potential impact on bodies of water and other natural and cultural resources in the Wayne National Forest.
“There are homes and communities near these leases, and toxic chemicals and air pollution would certainly have an impact on the health of local residents,”she said in the Marietta Timesarticle.“They also have failed to comply with the obligation to make sure cultural and historical resources are not harmed.”
In the document outlining the environmental groups’ objections to the Sept. 20 planned mineral lease auction (and any others that are scheduled), they argue, “BLM relies on several NEPA (federal environmental law) documents and related documents to determine NEPA adequacy, but none of these documents adequately addresses surface, water, air, public health, wildlife, vegetation and climate change impacts associated with high-volume, horizontal oil and gas development (fracking), including both forest-wide cumulative effects and site-specific effects of leasing the proposed parcels.”
The groups argue that the two national forest parcels (75 acres) that would have been up for bid in the suspended Sept. 20 auction are outside of the 18,000 Wayne forest acres identified on a map in the environmental assessment signed by BLM’s Gettinger in October 2016. As a result, the public had no chance to comment on potential fracking of the two parcels, nor the effect of fracking on nearby streams.
IN THE MARIETTA TIMES article, Mike Chadsey, a spokesman for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, expressed frustration at the continued roadblocks put up by the federal government.
“The landowners are waiting for their minerals to be produced, and although about 90 percent of the minerals are under privately owned land, in order to get to some of that we have to go through public lands with horizontal (drilling),”he said.“Obviously, we are frustrated when sales are pulled, regardless of whether it’s two parcels or 200.”
The “checkerboard” ownership pattern in the Wayne forest has complicated an already complex issue. Landowners complain that they can’t benefit from the private resources they own because they’re often hamstrung by the same restrictions that apply to oil and gas drilling under federal land and/or federal mineral rights.
According to a press release issued July 23 by NARO (the National Association of Royalty Owners) and Landowners for Energy Access and Safe Exploration (LEASE), “After seven years of inaction, private land and mineral owners adjacent to Wayne National Forest parcels have had enough of the bureaucratic red tape tying up oil and gas permits.”
The release said that representatives of NARO and LEASE this summer traveled to Washington, D.C., and registered their concerns with Ohio’s two U.S. senators, Sherrod Brown, D, and Rob Portman, R, along with U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, and the representatives of the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and Energy and Mineral Resources, among others.
“Federal bureaucrats are violating mineral owners’ private property rights,” Becky Clutter, a voluntary board member of NARO Appalachia and a founder of LEASE, said in the release. “It’s been going on too long and property owners want to see this resolved. Individuals who work in these federal agencies have been instructed by recent actions taken by President Trump and Secretary Zinke to move these lease sales and permits along, but they aren’t doing it. It’s more than dereliction of duty, its obstructionism – and private property owners are fed up.”
NARO and LEASE maintain in the release that since the Center for Biological Diversity and other groupssued the BLM and U.S. Forest Service in the spring of 2017, “the leasing of federal minerals has slowed and no permits to drill have been issued.”
“The situation gets even more convoluted,” Clutter continued, “as private landowners are now being told that simply because their private property gets included into a drilling unit that contains federal parcels, their private parcels may now be subject to full NEPA (federal environmental) review including archeological surveys.”
In his op-ed posted Friday on theHill.com, NARO’s Jerry Simmons outlined the legislation that’s been introduced in Congress to address the issues outlined by Clutter.
Simmons wrote, “The Ending Duplicative Permitting Act (HR 6107)… clarifies that BLM shall not require permits for oil and gas activities conducted on non-federal surface estate to access subsurface mineral estate that is less than 50 percent federally owned, and for other purposes.”
This essentially means that no federal drilling permit would be required if 1) the drilling platform for a horizontal hydraulic fracturing operation were located on private land; and 2) less than half of the underground oil and gas right areas targeted by the fracking operation were federally owned. Fracking operations typically involve a centrally located well-pad, with horizontal underground pipes running thousands of yards in different directions, often under adjoining properties.
The exception for a federal drilling permit, in these cases, would mean that state permitting would prevail, which the oil and gas industry in Ohio typically has preferred as quicker and more straightforward than the more stringent federal regulations.
In his op-ed, Simmons asserted that “90 percent of the mineral rights in the region (Wayne forest’s Marietta Unit) are owned by private landowners." This suggests that federal environmental regulations, under the proposed legislation, would cover very little of the Wayne National Forest.
(According to the U.S. Forest Service, however, the "90 percent" figure quoted by Simmons is incorrect. On a web page covering oil and gas development on the Forest Service's Wayne National Forest website, "Beneath approximately 41 percent or 100,139 acres of the WNF, oil and natural gas are federally owned. Privately owned oil and natural gas rights underlie approximately 59 percent or 144,103 acres of WNF system land.)
Simmons wrote, “This new legislation would help to clarify when NEPA (federal environmental) review is needed and when the rights of private landowners must be respected, which should be the default for government.”