Wayne headquarters

Wayne National Forest headquarters.

The federal government has taken its next step in a process that could result in oil and gas drilling on the Wayne National Forest in southeast Ohio, though any drilling on federal land in Athens County is unlikely for at least a few years.

In a news release issued earlier this week, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced that it’s now preparing an environmental assessment (EA) “to consider whether or not to lease parcels for the purpose of oil and gas exploration and development.”

Parcels under consideration, as a result of the BLM receiving “dozens of Expressions of Interest from industry operators,” total 18,800 acres on the Wayne National Forest in Washington and Monroe counties, the news release said.

While the BLM and U.S. Forest Service previously said that 3,150 acres in Athens and Perry counties, and another 9,975 acres in Lawrence County, also were being considered for oil and gas leasing, the current EA is limited to the listed acreage in the national forest’s Marietta Unit, far to the northeast of Athens.

That’s an area with active oil and gas development, via horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking), whereas the Athens and Lawrence county areas so far have seen little or none of that sort of drilling.

BLM public affairs specialist Martha Malik said Monday that EAs for drilling in the Athens and Ironton (Lawrence County) units of the Wayne National Forest probably won’t be undertaken until 2017, with any drilling taking place thereafter. She wasn’t sure why those assessments are being delayed, or whether the delays have any connection to the amount of interest industry has shown in drilling in the Athens and Ironton units.

There’s a dearth of infrastructure for storing, transporting and processing oil and gas in these areas, while some informed sources have suggested the geology isn’t ideal for deep-shale drilling (with existing technology) as one moves south and west in Ohio. The market for oil and gas remains severely depressed as well. Whether these factors are impacting the schedule for EAs on the Wayne, or whether some other factors are at play, is uncertain.

In Athens and other communities affected by the overall leasing proposal for the national forest, the BLM and Forest Service held public open houses this past November to introduce the process for evaluating industry expressions of interest in drilling on Wayne National Forest land “and provide more detailed information to assist the public in providing substantive comments.”

The Athens meeting was closed early after a sizable number of drilling/fracking opponents voiced frustration and anger at the event format, which didn’t allow for public testimony.

A small group of drilling supporters also appeared at the raucous meeting, mainly composed of landowners who feel they could benefit from adjoining federal lands being opened to oil and gas development. While public sentiment in Athens County appears mainly opposed to allowing drilling on the national forest, public and local government input in Washington and Monroe counties has been largely supportive.

Opponents in Athens County charge that fracking threatens water supplies and carries other adverse environmental impacts. Such groups as the Athens County Fracking Action Network and Buckeye Forest Council contend that the federal agencies should require substantially more involved environmental impact statements, instead of the less intense EAs, for something as potentially damaging as fracking in the national forest.

According to the BLM’s news release, the agency is continuing to consider public input on the proposed leasing in the Wayne National Forest, including comments provided at the meetings in November and in writing.

Currently, they’re accepting public comments “prior to analyzing the environmental effects of the EOIs (industry expressions of interest on the Marietta unit) under consideration. This comment period will close on Jan. 22, 2016.”

According to the BLM news release, “substantive comments” may be provided via email to blm_es_comments@blm.gov or mailed to BLM Northeastern States District, Attn: Kurt Wadzinski, 626 E. Wisconsin Ave., Suite 200, Milwaukee, WI 53202-4617.

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