In the midst of global environmental change, Athens County and the rest of southeast Ohio are embedded in a local fight for the future of the Wayne National Forest, Ohio’s only national forest.
On Oct. 14, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released the official notice of lease sale where interested parties can bid in an online auction for 33 parcels of land — totaling more than 1,600 acres in the Marietta unit of the forest — which is comprised of Monroe, Noble and Washington counties.
The sale is scheduled for Dec. 13 and will presumably lead to oil and gas extraction on these lands. The BLM released an environmental assessment outlining the regulations meant to mitigate environmental harm.
According to the assessment, the use of standard operating procedures and best management practices will reduce the amount of environmental degradation oil drilling could have on the forest.
“These are anything from where the vehicles can drive to what kind of roads have to be set up to where they can and can’t drill or set up equipment,” said Chris Rose, a BLM resource advisory coordinator.
Furthermore, the BLM enforces the use of an application for permit to drill, which would require an inspection of the grounds before drilling to protect the environment. According to Rose, these applications should minimize environmental damage.
“That’s why regulations are in place and that’s why we work with the companies, our federal partners and with the state to ensure that those regulations are followed,” Rose said.“Oil and gas leasing is nothing new to Ohio. The BLM statistics show that oil development has been in place since at least 1988.”
Still, many environmental groups believe the BLM has not done enough to prevent environmental safety and oil drilling should stay out of the forest.
On Aug. 11, the Ohio Environmental Council, along with two other environmental organizations, sent a letter to the Forest Service to reject the BLM’s proposal to lease land for oil and gas development. The Forest Service is required to work directly with the BLM on the leasing and management of minerals under federal forest lands.
Nathan Johnson, an attorney for the Ohio Environmental Council, said the Forest Service did not directly respond to the letter.
“We did have a conversation with the Forest Service over the phone but I would take the formal response to be the fact that they put those parcels up for lease/sale,” Johnson said.
The Ohio Environmental Council is a statewide organization that promotes clean air, water and energy for Ohio, and they are still working to prevent this proposal from going through.
”We’re talking about a legal effort primarily, and right now we’ve got the lease/sale posted for Dec. 13 and we have our appeal deadline for Nov. 14,” Johnson said.
He argues the BLM has ignored many important factors in the environmental impact drilling in the Wayne could have.
“They completely ignore the construction of pipelines and pipeline buildup which, by many accounts, is considered the single largest source of surface disturbance,” Johnson said. “A lot of the surface disturbance, oil pads and other problematic items, are probably going to be located on private land and their own regulations for the most part cannot govern how those operations are put together.”
According to the environmental assessment, 59 percent of minerals underlying the Wayne are privately owned and would not be subject to federal regulation.
“There are always going to be environmental risks,” Johnson said about oil drilling. “You’re basically ruining and removing habitat and degrading what remains so that’s always a problem.”
Environmentalists aren’t the only ones protesting; on June 28, a public meeting held by the Athens County Commissioners saw 30 concerned citizens unanimously opposing the BLM’s plan.
However, oil and gas developers have pledged their full support. Mike Chadsey, public affairs manager for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said drilling can be done in an environmentally-friendly way.
“Hydraulic fracturing has been safely and successfully used thousands of times in Ohio since the 1940s and is not a new process,” Chadsey said in an email. He sees the economic opportunity in the development of new minerals.
“Oil and gas development within the region has also allowed residents to save money on their home heating bills and the price of gasoline has dropped across the nation,” he said.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. imported 37 percent less barrels of oil per day in 2015 than it did in 2005, and that percentage has been steadily dropping each year.
“Every well that is drilled gets the United States closer to energy security,” Chadsey said. “The more we produce domestically will allow more of our country’s capital to stay at home.”
Other advocates for the BLM’s plan have said America’s energy independence is reliant on drilling for oil, despite the environmental impacts.
Some environmentalists still argue the need for energy does not surpass environmental responsibility. Wendy Park from the Center of Biological Diversity, one of the organizations working with the Ohio Environmental Council, noted the specific impacts drilling could have on the forest’s ecosystems and wildlife.
“We’re especially concerned about the Indiana bat.” Park said. “It’s a listed species under the endangered species act.”
The BLM acknowledges the potential risk to the Indiana bat in the EA, but the lack of regulation on private land drilling still leaves the bat vulnerable.
“You have this potential problem of wastewater pits being allowed on private surface within the Wayne National Forest and of course service regulations won’t be able to do anything about that,” Park said.
Human health is a major concern for environmentalists and citizens alike, especially with the use of fracking.
“There’s a lot that isn’t known about the chemicals used in these fracking operations,” Park said. “There’s a risk of spills and leaks from the storage of chemicals there, the transport of chemical to and from the well-pads.”
While all methods of oil drilling raise a potential threat to human health, fracking has been particularly controversial. According to the Ohio Environmental Council’s website, fracking can lead to the “contamination of underground sources of drinking water and surface waters resulting from spills, faulty well construction, or by other means.”
In 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found inorganic, hazardous substances in the wells of four homes and ordered water sampling to 61 homes in Dimock, Pennsylvania. The Cabot Oil & Gas Co. was found guilty of contaminating groundwater through fracking in a lawsuit that later granted $4.2 million to the afflicted families.
Opponents of oil drilling are also concerned with the large-scale effects drilling could have on climate change.
“The science tells us that at least 80 percent of proven fossil fuels need to be kept in the ground, which means areas that have already been explored and leased should only be extracting 20 percent,” Park said. “This is undermining our climate goals and our commitment in the Paris agreement.”
The Paris Agreement details a global action plan to avoid the most dangerous effects on climate change. From worldwide coordination to backwoods Appalachia, activist groups continue to call into question the battle between environmental accountability and energy use.