CINCINNATI - The U.S. Forest Service said Monday that the shale drilling technique for natural gas known as hydraulic fracturing can take place in a national forest in southeast Ohio.
The forest includes parts of Washington County.
The Forest Service released its report after a study of the Wayne National Forest's land and resource management plan drafted in 2006. The forest's supervisor, Anne Carey, said in a statement that she determined the plan could adequately address any damage and risks to the forest from the natural gas extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. She also said there is no need for a new environmental impact study.
Forest Service officials decided in November to review the shale drilling technology and the 2006 plan after objections from environmental groups and local government officials to the proposed leasing of more than 3,000 acres of mineral rights in the forest for oil and natural gas drilling. A federal auction of leases for those mineral rights initially scheduled for December 2011 was delayed by the Forest Service's study.
The Buckeye Forest Council, an environmental coalition, had said the Forest Service's 2006 plan was outdated because it did not mention hydraulic fracturing. The council, Athens county, the city of Athens and Ohio University opposed the leasing, with critics saying they were concerned that drilling could lead to groundwater contamination.
Hydraulic fracturing 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.
Energy executives say the technique has been used for decades without problems. Gov. John Kasich has said that further development of the gas beneath Ohio would create more jobs.
For the report, Forest Service officials pulled together a team of natural resources experts to analyze above-ground effects from the practice in the forest that currently has nearly 1,300 shallow oil and gas wells. The Bureau of Land Management, which has control over mineral rights beneath the surface of the federal land, has found that it is economically feasible for deep well horizontal drilling there. The Forest Service report also says 13 high-volume horizontal drilling well sites potentially could be developed in the forest through 2016.
But it will be up to the Bureau of Land Management to consider and allocate any proposals for leasing oil and gas rights in the forest, Forest Service spokeswoman Jane Cliff said Monday. A message was left Monday at the bureau's Washington offices.
Nathan Johnson, a staff attorney with the Buckeye Forest Council, said Monday that the group is extremely disappointed with the Forest Service's finding and thinks it's "a bad decision."
"The analysis in the 2006 plan doesn't consider the potential impact of shale fracking on the environment," Johnson said.
He said that the group is not ruling out possible legal action in an effort to compel the Forest Service to conduct a formal environmental impact study.