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.

Past ruling

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.

Economic impact

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.