COLUMBUS: The U.S. Forest Service has dropped plans to auction natural gas and oil drilling rights next month on thousands of acres in Ohio’s only national forest because administrators there want to study the possible impacts from the gas extraction method known as fracking, officials said Tuesday.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a horizontal drilling technique for gas that blasts chemical-laced water deep underground to break up shale and release natural gas locked in the rock. The Wayne National Forest in southeast Ohio will pull together a team of natural resources experts to analyze above-ground effects from the practice, forest Supervisor Anne Carey said.
In the meantime, more than 3,200 acres of forest land has been withdrawn from a federal oil and gas lease sale scheduled for Dec. 7, the Forest Service said. The acreage in Athens, Gallia, and Perry counties was to be included in a broader sale of leases for 20,949 acres of federal land in Ohio, Mississippi and Louisiana.
The study of fracking and the Wayne National Forest was being undertaken “based on new information and increased public interest on natural gas exploration, especially deep horizontal drilling,” Carey said. The review could take up to six months and lead to revisions in a 2006 environmental impact statement on proper use of the forest, which currently has nearly 1,300 mostly shallow oil and gas wells.
The Buckeye Forest Council, an environmental coalition, had said the environmental statement was outdated because it did not mention hydraulic fracturing. The council opposed the forest leasing, as did Athens County, the city of Athens and Ohio University.
Putting the auction plan on hold was a smart decision because of concerns about fracking, said Nathan Johnson, staff attorney for the Buckeye Forest Council.
“There’s potential for contamination of groundwater, given that the brine and the chemicals that are also down there could, in theory, well up and get into the groundwater. There’s a lot of potential for spills, leaks,” Johnson said.
His coalition hopes the forest service will ultimately decide to put a moratorium on gas extraction from shale beneath the Wayne National Forest, at least until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency completes an exploration of potential hazards.
Ohio Democratic lawmakers have proposed a temporary ban on all fracking in the state, pending the EPA study, while Republicans who control the state legislature have approved bills expanding drilling opportunities.
Energy executives say fracking has been widely used for decades without problems, and Gov. John Kasich has said that further development of the gas trapped beneath Ohio would mean jobs. A message seeking comment was left Tuesday for a Kasich spokesman.