An upcoming auction for mineral rights has some regional officials concerned about the natural gas drilling process known as "fracking" coming to the Wayne National Forest.
Parcels in the Athens, Gallia and Perry County portions of Ohio's only national forest will be up for bid in December. None of the areas are in Washington County but acting forest supervisor Gary Willison said he expects to see more interest in mineral leases because the forest sits above the Utica shale formation.
Advances in technology have allowed companies to use the process of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to extract oil and natural gas from the deep Utica and Marcellus shale formations. While proponents say the process - which involves pumping water, sand and some chemical additives deep underground to fracture the formations - is safe when done properly, some people worry about the potential impact on the environment, including the water table.
Athens County and city officials have sent letters to the federal Bureau of Land Management, asking that the 2,624 acres in Athens County's York Township be removed from the planned auction. They are concerned over the potential impact on water sources and scenery.
But Willison said leasing the rights does not mean there will be fracking going on in the forest immediately, or ever.
"That would be up to the people bidding on it," he said.
At a glance
Mineral rights for parcels in the Wayne National Forest will be put out for bid in December in the following counties:
While companies do not have to specify their plans when bidding, they must submit a site-specific plan before they can drill. The U.S. Forestry Service must then do an environmental impact assessment and the companies must obtain proper permits from other agencies as well, Willison said.
"When we lease these minerals, it's not like we're just turning the oil and gas companies loose to go do whatever they want," he said.
Money for the rights goes to the national treasury but Willison said the federal government isn't just holding auctions to capitalize on the interest in the Utica shale.
"Someone has to express an interest before we have a lease sale," he said.
That could happen more in light of the current optimism over the shale formations, and future auctions could involve parcels in Washington County.
Diane Hendry, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management, said there are already more than 1,000 wells in the national forest. Willison said four wells were started between Washington and Noble County last year but all of them were shallow and did not involve fracking.
Lowell resident Betsy Cook, a member of the Southeast Ohio Fracking Interest Group, said she has reservations about fracking being allowed in the national forest.
"I'm very concerned about it because we know so little about it right now," she said. "I'm hoping that our federal government will get a good lease where the company will be required to clean up any spills."
Washington County Commissioner Tim Irvine said he wouldn't be worried about rights to portions of the forest in the county being auctioned and possibly used for fracking.
"I haven't seen any evidence that it causes a problem with the water supply," he said.