A federal judge blocked new oil and gas development in Ohio’s only national forest.
The decision comes after a ruling last year found the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service failed to adequately consider the environmental impacts hydraulic fracturing could have on Wayne National Forest.
The U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Ohio ordered a review of U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s 2016 environmental assessment and the U.S. Forest Service’s consent to lease that gave the OK to lease the federal lands.
Pending review, the order also prohibits new leases in Wayne National Forest, prohibits new drilling permits and surface disturbance on existing leases and halts water withdrawal from the Little Muskingum River for any drilling that’s already occurring.
Judge Michael Watson said in his opinion that the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service failed to take the requisite “hard look” at the impacts of fracking in the Wayne, including impacts to air quality, surface area disturbance and cumulative impacts on the Indiana Bat and Little Muskingum River.
“This is a victory for public health, for outdoor recreation and for our climate,” said Nathan Johnson, public lands director for the Ohio Environmental Council, in a statement. “The court’s ruling means that, at least for the foreseeable future, a significant portion of the Wayne National Forest will be safe from oil and gas development.”
Environmental groups sued the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in May 2017 over plans to permit fracking in the Wayne.
The Ohio Environmental Club, Sierra Club, Heartwood and Center for Biological Diversity argued that the federal agencies relied on outdated information and ignored “significant environmental threats” before opening the Wayne’s 40,000-acre Marietta unit to unconventional gas development in October 2016.
The Wayne National Forest is Ohio’s only national forest. It’s split into three non-contiguous sections. The Marietta unit is the eastern most section and consists of more than 268,000 acres of private and federal lands. There are already about 1,200 active vertical wells in the entire forest.
The Bureau of Land Management sold 679 acres in Monroe and Washington counties in its first lease auction in December 2016 and another 1,147 acres in a second auction in March 2017.
The court ruled in March 2020 that the agencies “demonstrated a disregard for the different types of impact caused by fracking in the forest” and made decisions based on a faulty foundation.
Watson found that the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service both relied on a 2006 Forest Plan and 2006 Environmental Impact Statement that looked at the impact of vertical drilling to determine the impact of horizontal drilling and fracking.
The judge then allowed all parties involved in the case to file briefs on what actions should be taken next.
In his ruling from last week, Watson said he took into consideration the economic impacts of his decision, in addition to the environmental impacts.
In court documents, Eclipse Resources, a gas exploration company and intervenor in the case, said it leased nearly 2,200 acres of oil and gas minerals in the Wayne National Forest through the BLM auction.
The company invested about $41.4 million to acquire, explore and develop mineral interests in the Wayne. It partially drilled two wells and started site prep for eight other wells.
Eclipse asked that the agencies be allowed to correct the issues through a review without vacating the federal leases. Vacating the leases would mean a loss of money already invested, but also millions of dollars in losses in future royalty payments for both the feds and private landowners.
“Private landowners would lose more than approximately $125 million in future royalty payments from the undeveloped APD wells,” Eclipse said, in a brief filed in May 2020.
This court decision follows President Joe Biden’s moratorium on new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waterways, pending a comprehensive review.