Debate over fracking in Ohio’s only national forest is heating up

Environmental groups are in an uproar after federal officials managing the Wayne National Forest chose to take steps to allow fracking on a portion of its grounds.

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click to enlarge Wayne National Forest in southeastern Ohio is split into three sections. The Marietta Unit is further along in the process that could eventually allow fracking. - Map: Sam Summerlin
Map: Sam Summerlin
Wayne National Forest in southeastern Ohio is split into three sections. The Marietta Unit is further along in the process that could eventually allow fracking.

Ohio’s only national forest is one step closer to becoming the site of energy industry excavation, including the controversial practice known as fracking.

Federal officials managing the Wayne National Forest, founded in 1992 as part of a reforestation program, recently made a controversial decision to take steps to allow fracking on a portion of its grounds. While proponents argue that private land rights have to be respected, and that fracking will contribute serious economic growth to the state, environmental groups are in an uproar. 

Underlying the fight, both figuratively and literally, is a dispute about the tensions between surface land ownership and rights to the minerals below that surface. Energy industry advocates say that private owners should be able to access and take advantage of minerals underneath the federally managed forest. But environmentalists say that could cause serious damage to those preserved natural areas.

Wayne National Forest is split into three sections: the Marietta Unit, located in Washington, Noble and Monroe counties; the Ironton Unit, the next-door neighbor of Ohio University; and the Athens Ranger District, in the southernmost part of the state. Some of the land in the forest is publicly owned, but other swatches are privately held.

The Bureau of Land Management, a department of the federal government, has projects in each of the three units of the Wayne National Forest that could green light private use of mineral rights underlying the forest. While the Athens Ranger District and Ironton Unit are listed as being in the preparation and planning stages of that process, the Marietta Unit has advanced beyond the Comment and Review Period, meaning that private mineral rights could be granted for fracking there soon.

According to Jackie Stewart, Ohio state director for energy industry-aligned Energy in Depth, the public comment period officially ended May 30, after an extension was allowed. She says it is extremely unlikely that the bureau will develop in the other two regions, because geographically they’re not as appealing. But for the Marietta Unit, the possibility for fracking is much closer.

The bureau should come out with a final environmental assessment next month — a preliminary assessment that found no environmental issues with possible fracking has already been issued — and could then go ahead with leasing the mineral rights within the forest in the form of an auction sale. 

Stewart’s employer, Energy in Depth, is a program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. As she puts it, they’ve been following the so-called “shale revolution” — the huge surge in the energy industry caused by the advent of new technology like fracking that allows access to previously unfeasible natural gas resources — since its infancy. 

Stewart says the issue is not about fracking at all, but rather about land rights and ownership.

“The federal government doesn’t even really own a big, huge chunk of the minerals under the Wayne National Forest — they’re owned by private landowners,” Stewart says. “Which is why in this particular instance, for example, landowners are furious because the federal government has prohibited the right to develop those minerals.” 

But environmental activists disagree with that assessment. Joe Hazelbaker of the Buckeye Forest Council sees the move toward allowing fracking as a fundamentally inappropriate act committed by the bureau. 

“There is nothing that prevents a private landowner from developing their mineral rights,” Hazelbaker says, citing a situation where a landowner already has wells on their property outside of the Wayne National Forest, but wants to cash in by expanding their rights to the protected land. “They are holding the public hostage by making this assertion that in order for them to develop their rights in the way they want to the public has to give up their national forest. That’s not legitimate, and it wouldn’t be appropriate even if it was true.”

The Buckeye Forest Council, along with other local environmental groups, has been in communication with the bureau and the decision makers, and they’ve specifically taken an issue with the environmental assessment that was published. 

“For one thing it’s kind of a cart-and-pony show,” Hazelbaker says. “There is no adequate exploration on the long-term effects on the water resources in the Wayne National Forest or the plant and animal life in the Wayne National Forest. In fact, they haven’t even done any of the research into the natural heritage database that is required under state law.”

In its official comment, the Buckeye Forest Council calls for a moratorium on all new leasing of fossil fuels in the Wayne National Forest. This temporary prohibition would allow for a more thorough review of the environmental degradation that could occur thanks to fracking.

“While the Marietta (environmental assessment) mentions fracking, explains in basic terms the shale layers underlying the Wayne and discloses some of the chemicals which are emitted into the air and water from the process,” Buckeye Forest Council said in a statement, “it is severely deficient for determining whether or not a proposed action may have significant effects on the human environment.”

But Stewart says that most oil developers won’t be interested in putting well pads in the forest and that they’ll examine primarily adjacent lands. And it would be “a whole other can of worms” worth of documentation and review to even consider actual fracking on the forest’s surface.

“At this point right now we know we can get cheap, reliable, abundant energy from shale that we didn’t even think was possible years ago,” Stewart says. “And we’re doing that much more efficiently than we were a couple of years ago. Recycled water is becoming much more used at injection wells. As we continue to develop our technology, we are going to continue to make sure that we are continuing to produce natural gas and shale in more environmentally sound ways.”

Ultimately, industry boosters like Stewart say that 100 percent renewable energy model would be fantastic, but its not realistic, especially not right now. And in the meantime, fracking, which helps to drive Ohio’s economy and employ its citizens, is the best option. 

Issues around energy and the environment have become increasingly politically charged, especially in impoverished Eastern Ohio communities that once relied on coal mining and other energy industries to provide secure, middle class jobs. Many of those jobs have disappeared as the energy industry has cut its workforce in the region. Some conservative politicians, including presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, cite environmental regulations for that dip and pledge to roll back prohibitions on power plants and mining and fracking operations.

Hazelbaker and other environmentalists think that’s a bad idea. They believe in keeping these fuel sources in the ground, and they see fracking as more detrimental environmentally than other sources of energy, perhaps even coal. If the bureau does go forward with the auction sale of mineral rights, the Buckeye Forest Council has been raising money to outbid any potential oil and gas company that might go in and eventually develop the land. 

The Bureau of Land Management will release a final environmental assessment within the next month, according to its schedule. At that point, forest protection groups and those with interests in natural gas development will come head to head over how exactly these buried assets will or won’t come to fruition. ©

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