Forest Service anticipates little impact from Marcellus
Will large scale commercial gas drilling come to the Monongahela National Forest as companies seek to cash in on the natural gas trapped in the Marcellus shale?
Forest Supervisor Clyde Thompson isn't betting on it.
At the request of Eight Rivers Council and the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition, Thompson made an appearance at McClintic Library in Marlinton September 12 to speak with concerned citizens about the U.S. Forest Service's stance on drilling in the MNF.
In February, the West Virginia Sierra Club and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy took Thompson to task over a March 2011 study issued by his office concerning gas exploration and development on the forest. Titled "Review of New Information for Natural Gas Exploration and Development in Marcellus Shale," the document states there is no need for the USFS to update the Forest Plan for the MNF that was finalized in 2006.
Since 1991, the USFS study notes that "substantially less development has occurred than predicted." During that time only about 20 percent of the number of wells projected by the USFS were actually drilled on the MNF, while road construction and surface disturbances were more than 90 percent below USFS projections, according to the study.
On the 900,000-plus acres of the MNF, there are currently 54 storage wells and 14 active wells tapping into the Oriskany sandstone and Huntersville chert geologic formations, according to Thompson.
Citing data from the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey—and from existing wells on the forest that pass through the Marcellus shale—the USFS study concludes that little, if any recoverable gas is to be found in the Marcellus shale below the MNF.
"Although discovery of economic Marcellus shale gas is reportedly occurring around and near the Forest, the complex folding and faulting of rock layers, combined with the thickness of Marcellus shale within the Forest, are expected to have a bearing on the likelihood and rate of Marcellus shale gas exploration within the Forest such that it is foreseeable to proceed slowly, if at all," the study states.
"[T]he geologic setting of the MNF is expected to slow, delay or possibly even preclude exploration and development of Marcellus shale gas within the Forest," the study adds.
While no Marcellus shale wells have been drilled on the forest, a few have been established near the forest, including Nicholas county. Wells near the MNF have only one-eighth to one-quarter the flow rates of wells drilled elsewhere in the state, according to WVGES data cited by the study.
The slow pace of conventional gas drilling and the predictions of lower flow rates and difficulty in extracting natural gas from the Marcellus shale form the basis of the USFS conclusion that any drilling activity will still fall within the levels and land impacts anticipated by the 2006 Forest Plan and that no further study or amendment of the plan are necessary.
In their 10-page response, the Sierra Club and Highlands Conservancy note that Marcellus shale gas development was not in consideration when the 2006 Forest Plan was written.
The response details potential impacts from drilling, from large-scale use of water from creeks and streams in the drilling process to the risk to wildlife from wastewater impoundments and the potential for large, hastily built impoundments to fail.
"We submit that while the square footage of surface in the entire Forest may not exceed predictions, the scale of impacts to an area where development occurred would be considerably greater than the analysis behind the standards and guidelines in the 2006 plan," the conservation groups state.
The response also faults the Forest Service for betting that large-scale drilling won't come to the MNF.
"That something is unlikely to occur is no excuse for a lack of planning," the Sierra Club and Highlands Conservancy letter states.
While the USFS's March 2011 study goes into detail about the regulatory authority granted to the USFS and Bureau of Land Management in leases of federally-owned mineral holdings, many people at Wednesday's meeting raised questions about what authority, if any, the USFS has to regulate activities on privately-held mineral rights in the forest.
Thompson's answer, in short: not much.
Leases of mineral rights owned by the U.S. government are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Thompson explained at Wednesday's meeting.
But that authority only covers about two-thirds of the minerals under the MNF. About 38 percent of the mineral rights under the forest are held by private entities, said Thompson.
The Forest Supervisor handed out a copy of a recent amendment to the National Environmental Policy Act Handbook. Known as NEPA, the act details when and how the agency handles environmental impact statements, assessments and monitoring of activities on the forest. The document notes that the NEPA process only applies to "proposed 'Federal' actions."
"If there is no Federal action, then there is no NEPA," said Thompson.
If a drilling operator has an agreement to access privately-held natural gas under the MNF, Thompson said USFS authority to regulate the drilling is very limited, even in areas where the mineral holdings lie beneath congressionally-designated Wilderness Areas
At one point, the discussion turned to the question of eminent domain and whether or not the USFS could purchase the privately-held mineral rights beneath the MNF. Thompson noted that such a purchase was a matter of political will and highly unlikely.
Thompson also noted that in most cases, the minerals are unexplored. Therefore, it becomes nearly impossible to determine the monetary value of the mineral rights being considered for purchase.
Instead, Thompson described which regulatory tools are presently at the Forest Service's disposal to manage drilling activity on the forest.
Several in the room pressed Thompson on what he would do if a proposal comes to his desk, and how the public can be involved in the process.
Rather than make a blanket policy statement, Thompson said his preferred approach is to deal with drilling proposals "strategically," on a case-by-case basis, due to the patchwork of deed restrictions, water rights, access and ecological concerns found throughout the forest and how the current forest plan might apply to those particular details.
"I understand the passion on the issue," Thompson said, "and I am just as concerned when I look at the impacts and read the stories. The difference is on approach. I can create issues by taking stances and draw lightning... But if I actually look and keep my mind focused on what it is that we're about, and I understand public ownership and the increasing value of it in light of the other threats, the question is, how do I deal with that strategically?"
If the USFS receives a proposal to drill for privately-held minerals, Thompson said he could issue a scoping letter to provide notice of the proposal and solicit public input.
"Here's my commitment," said Thompson. "Whether or not it's on private or public, I would go public with the disclosure—here's the project—so that we would get your involvement and comments into whatever I might have influence on."
Beyond that, Thompson advised those concerned about the impacts of such a proposal to persistently push the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to enforce the applicable regulations. Even on private minerals under the MNF, the DEP has more regulatory authority over drilling activities than the USFS, Thompson noted.
Many of those in attendance—who widely view the DEP as facilitators of drilling, rather than regulators—met Thompson's advice with a mix of groans and laughter.
"If it's something that's on private minerals, you do have a voice," said Thompson. "I know you all laugh about DEP, but you've got to keep after that, because that's really where the leverage is, under state law."
In the meantime, there are no proposals to drill on the MNF, Thompson noted.
"This issue isn't whether we have Marcellus and how we get involved in it," said Thompson. "We don't have a proposal on Marcellus. The point on Marcellus would be whatever the drilling proposal might be... We would have to evaluate what the issues were, where that was located. From there we would determine the action we'd take in terms of comment, notice and all those kinds of things. If it's on private (minerals), then that could be different than if it's on public minerals."
The [2006 Forest Plan] is not a regulatory document," Thompson explained. "It doesn't give us control. It give us direction. So is there anything else I need in the plan that would change the plan with respect to Marcellus? Our perspective is that there is enough direction in the plan, in terms of water emphasis, wildlife emphasis, air quality emphasis—that there's enough controls in there now to give us the direction we need to deal with any Marcellus proposals."
Several audience members voiced their disagreement with that conclusion.
Drew Tanner may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.