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Enviro Groups Sue to Stop Oil/NatGas Development in Ohio National Forest

Four environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against the federal government to void oil and gas leases and stop high-volume hydraulic fracturing in Ohio's Wayne National Forest (WNF).

The lawsuit was filed this week in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio against the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Center for Biological Diversity, the Ohio Environmental Council, the Sierra Club and Heartwood argue that unconventional development would industrialize the state's only national forest and threaten public health, endangered species and the climate.

Since last year, the BLM has auctioned nearly 2,000 acres in the forest in the Utica Shale hotbed of Monroe County. Two lease sales have so far earned more than $6 million for distribution to the state and federal government.

The group's lawsuit argues that the agencies violated the Environmental Policy Act by approving oil and gas leases without properly addressing the aforementioned risks and water quality in the area. The complaint specifically targets the BLM's December 2016 sale in which nearly 700 acres were auctioned, saying it relied on "outdated plans" to approve the leases.

The groups have also filed an administrative appeal of the March 2017 auction in which nearly 1,150 acres were leased in the forest. As they did earlier this year with Tuesday's lawsuit, the groups said they have also sent notice of their intent to sue the agencies for violation of the Endangered Species Act, specifically noting the risks associated with oil and gas development and the Indiana bat's habitat.

Industry groups, including the Ohio Oil and Gas Association and Energy In Depth, have dismissed the lawsuit as a "public relations stunt" and another attempt to stop more natural resources from being developed.

The BLM said in 2015 that it was considering leasing land in the forest’s broader 40,000 acre Marietta Unit that had been nominated for development by the industry. The decision came more than three years after the agency signed a supplemental information report that said an in-depth study it conducted proved there was no need to amend the forest's 2006 land and resource management plan or supplement its environmental impact statement to address the possible surface impacts from unconventional drilling, as environmental groups in the state had pushed for.

BLM began conducting environmental assessments (EA) in 2015 for the Marietta Unit and issued a final EA, which found oil and gas development in the forest would have no effect on climate, water quality or public health.

Shale drillers Gulfport Energy Corp. and Eclipse Resources Corp. are among the companies that successfully bid for the forest land. About 41% of the mineral rights across WNF are owned by the federal government. There are already more than 1,000 conventional wells in the forest, many of which are on federal land.

In unrelated news, Republicans in the Ohio House of Representatives have tacked on an amendment to the state budget that would give the legislature and not the governor the ability to appoint members to the state Oil and Gas Leasing Commission. The commission was created with a 2011 bill to review and authorize oil and gas leasing on land owned by the state -- including parks but not nature preserves.

While Republican Gov. John Kasich signed the bill into law, he has failed to appoint any members to the commission since, essentially enforcing a de facto drilling moratorium on state-owned land. Kasich's administration said this week that the governor remains opposed to such development in the state's parks. A similar effort by Republicans failed two years ago when lawmakers dropped their attempt to eliminate the commission from the review process. 

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