After four years of study, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has made a final decision to offer 40,000 acres of minerals located in Monroe, Noble, and Washington Counties in Ohio for competitive lease sale for oil and natural gas development under the surface of the Wayne National Forest (WNF) – with 1,600 acres being offered for auction December 13th.
Last week, the agency released its long-awaited final Environmental Assessment (EA) announcing that it found “no significant impact” to the environment that would result from its decision to move forward with these lease sales. While activists have made a multitude of false claims about this process, the reality is that the BLM came to the final EA through extensive public scoping and opportunities for comment. BLM added almost 100 pages of new analysis into the environmental review; specifically dealt with individual areas of protest; and the entire document was prepared in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969. The finding of “No Significant Impact” states,
“Based upon a review of the EA (Environmental Assessment) and supporting documents, I have determined that the proposed action is not a major federal action, and will not significantly affect the quality of the human environment, individually or cumulatively, with other actions in the general area.”
With that background here are the six things you need to know about leasing in the Wayne National Forest.
#1. BLM debunked activists’ climate claims.
The BLM’s final EA for leasing in the Forest included four pages that specifically dealt with protests received from the draft EA by environmental groups over air and climate change. This included a comment by anti-fracking activists that “oil and gas activities are exempted from major source pollution rules and are not monitored or regulated in Ohio.” Not true – and to that point, BLM’s response was this:
“Operators are required to ensure their actions do not violate any federal or state air quality standards. Appendix C, a new appendix added to the Final EA, summarizes Ohio’s oversight over emissions from oil and gas operations (page 155). The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) air pollution regulations are located in the Ohio Administrative Code (OAC) in Chapters 3745-14 to 3745-26, 3745-31, 3745-71 to 3745-80, 3745-100 to 3745-105, 3745-108, 3745-109, and 3745-112 to 3745-114.”
BLM protestors also charged that the agency did not “adequately assess potential impacts to climate change from future oil and gas operations.” To this comment BLM said, that:
“Direct links to climate change are uncertain. The inconsistency in results of scientific models used to predict climate change at the global scale coupled with the lack of scientific models designed to predict climate change on regional or local scales, limits the ability to directly associate potential mineral development in the Marietta Unit with measureable changes in climate. The BLM has reviewed the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) 2016 final guidance on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change and believes the Final EA is consistent with these documents in terms of the approach taken to assess potential impacts from greenhouse gas emissions and on climate change.” (emphasis added)
To highlight how obvious it is that BLM activist did not even take the time to research the area or draft EA, one of the protests against BLM stated that they ozone issues were not taken into account in the draft EA. Well, had activists actually done their homework, they would know, as BLM rightly pointed out, “Washington County is the only one of the three counties…that is currently in non-attainment for any of the criteria air pollutants (Sulfur Dioxide)”. This is a really important point, because Monroe and Noble counties are in attainment, and that has occurred as production from oil and natural gas has soared in those same counties!
#2. BLM opened leasing only to specific areas and with stipulations.
The Marietta Unit of the Wayne National Forest was the only unit considered in this recent decision by the BLM. Unlike many other federal forests, the WNF is not contiguous—it is a patchwork of federal land peppered among private acres, and includes privately held minerals located under the federally owned surface of the forest. The map and figure below from the final EA highlight both of these unique issues.
Due to the complex nature of the forest and protections for the environment, many of the acres in Monroe and Washington counties to be auctioned in December include a “No Surface Occupancy” stipulation on the entire lease or on designated areas of the lease. The December lease sale includes the following townships in Monroe County: Lee, Jackson, Perry, Green, Washington, and Wayne. It also includes Washington and Liberty County – and all of these acres have stipulations to preserve and protect the environment.
#3. BLM’s final Environmental Assessment was significantly more in-depth than its draft review.
The final EA is 206 pages, as compared to 112 pages found in the draft EA. The Final EA added an entire appendix (Appendix A, which is 31 pages long) to address the public comments received between the draft EA and the final EA. The BLM strengthened the final EA to included substantial content around the following areas: agency and tribal consultation, public comment period for the draft EA, greenhouse gas emissions, Ohio climate, public health and safety, transportation, socioeconomics, environmental justice, land use, geology, mineral, and climate change.
To visually capture the scope of these changes, take look at the side by side comparison of the draft EA and the final EA Table ii, which shows a breakdown of the proposed action (leasing of federal minerals) and the findings of impact, according to the BLM.
These changes are very important as “Keep It in The Ground” activists opposing leasing have routinely claimed that their concerns have not been addressed. In other words, they’ve rushed to judgement without even reading the document, calling the draft EA “gobbledygook.”
#4. The BLM reinforced (again and again) that the Environmental Assessment complies with NEPA.
A popular criticism made by activists during the entire scoping and public comment period was that the BLM was not complying with NEPA regulations, claiming that the agency’s actions were “legally and substantially inadequate to comply.” But they apparently didn’t read the 200 page EA, as it addresses this issue time and time again and states,
“This EA has been prepared in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969; the CEQ regulations implementing NEPA (40 Code of Federal Regulations [CFR] Parts 1500-1508), the United States Department of the Interior (DOI) NEPA requirements (Department Manual 516, Environmental Quality) and the BLM NEPA Handbook H-1790-1. The information presented within this document serves as the basis for the BLM Authorized Officer to decide whether the Proposed Action would result in significant impacts to the environment.”
The EA goes on to say,
“These criteria are analyzed in the Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) document related to the Final EA. Based on the analysis presented in the EA; the BLM believes that the conclusions presented in the FONSI are accurate.”
The BLM also addressed that they were a cooperating agency with the US Forest Service in 2006 and 2012 as the Forest Plan was updated to address hydraulic fracturing; these reviews also incorporated NEPA provisions as well.
#5. The BLM responded to landowner concerns.
The draft EA included language, which would have essentially forced BLM staff into the negotiating process between a lessor and lessee, for private minerals adjacent to the forest. In response the Appalachia chapter of the National Association of Royalty Owners (NARO), stated in a press release,
“In particular, the BLM recently assessed that “the private lands surrounding the Forest Service lands are owned by a variety of people from a variety of income and education levels. Someone who is living in poverty may be more prone than a wealthy person to grant an operator access without carefully considering impacts to his or her household”.
“The notion that a federal government agency has made an ‘assessment’ that the people in Appalachia are essentially incapable of managing their private property without government assistance in such matters as private contract negotiations is more than a little bit upsetting,” said Bob Hart, President of Appalachia NARO. “While we agree with the Proposed Action to lease federal minerals in the Wayne, and the Finding of No Significant Impact in the Environmental Assessment, we also believe that the agency is still not addressing the fact that the majority of the acres under the Wayne are privately owned, and the federal government should not impede or delay private minerals under the forest and adjacent to the forest from development.”
In direct response to what appears to be a significant outcry by landowners regarding the “highly offensive” language that “implies that private citizens are incapable of managing mineral development ton their property,” the BLM actually issued an apology:
“The BLM sincerely apologizes and did not intend to offend the public. This section has been revised accordingly in the Final EA.”
#6. BLM points to why it’s so important that UC publish its groundwater study.
EID submitted comment into the BLM asking that it consider the University of Cincinnati groundwater study, which is the only study that has been conducted in Ohio after the onset of Utica shale development and is the only study which has used isotope analysis. The study found “no evidence for natural gas contamination from shale oil and gas mining in any of the sampled groundwater wells of our study”.
EID has been requesting that UC publish this study since the results were made public in March, and they have yet to do so. If a study is not published and peer-reviewed than when environmental reviews are conducted by a federal agency, like the one here, they are not able to be used as a basis for a decision on that subject matter. Therefore, the UC study was not included in the final EA. Speaking directly to that point, the BLM responded to our request with this comment in the Final EA:
“In 2011 a Duke University study failed to show a connection between hydraulic fracturing and groundwater contamination. The University of Cincinnati study is a multi-year, ongoing study and the results were not published at the time the Final EA was written.” (emphasis added)
Although the Ohio Environmental Council claims that it plans to protest this final EA, it’s hard to imagine what grounds they would have to do so, as the agency has clearly demonstrated that they made substantial revisions to the draft and found with considerable scrutiny that “there is no significant impact” to the forest to lease federal minerals.