ATHENS, Ohio (WCMH)–The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is considering opening 31,900 acres under Wayne National Forest for gas and oil drilling, including portions of Athens, Washington and Galia counties.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a process that involves horizontal drilling to extract shale energy. But some residents and environmental groups in Athens County and southeastern Ohio expressed concern for air and water quality, if fracking is allowed in the Wayne, while offering only limited business opportunities.
The leasing of parcels of land by the BLM for sale has been a contentious issue since the idea was proposed in 2011-2012, when an earlier plan we withdrawn, pending further study and analysis of potential environmental impacts. The greatest concern expressed by those opposed to fracking is the potential for gas pollution, and wastewater contaminating local streams.
The BLM, which is the primary federal agency handling the process of determining ownership of mineral rights under the Wayne, plans to conduct Environmental Assessments (EAs), before making any decision regarding the possible lease of parcels or whether to pull back. The bureau has stated that it reserves the option to elevate any EA to a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
Anthony Scardina, Wayne National Forest Supervisor, acknowledged that “these parcels do have some level of proximity to the Hocking River, and that is a water supply to the city of Athens, and serves a lot of people, so that’s really an issue we’re going to be paying a lot of attention to.” He added, “it’s going to be a parcel by parcel decision, whether we allow leasing in a given area,” and only after a thorough review of environmental concerns.
Joe Hazelbaker, with the Buckeye Forest Council, expressed skepticism. He said his organization “believes this is the tip of the iceberg” to opening up more land for drilling by oil and gas companies.
Eric Heis, spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said “ODNR is currently writing rules that will expand on the current law, formalizing best management practices in an extensive review process which includes multiple public comment periods per rule package.”
“State regulations are more strict than federal regulatioins, and the BLM defers to the state” on all final decisions whether to lease land, he said, which must conform to regulations written by and enforced by the state.
“Twenty topics have been simultaneously folded into nine draft rule packages to formalize permit conditions that ODNR currently requires for each well on a site specific basis,” said Heis. “Last year we passed a prioritized rule package addressing horizontal well pad construction, which addressed three of these topics.”