Federal, state and local lawmakers, along with community, labor and business groups have submitted comment to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) urging the agency to open nearly 32,000 acres of the Wayne National Forest in Southern Ohio to more oil and gas development.

The comments are the latest development in a disagreement about whether to open more of the forest to drilling after the BLM said in November it was considering leasing 31,900 acres there, including some land that’s prospective for horizontal hydraulic fracturing in the Utica Shale (see Shale Daily, Nov. 17, 2015).

Comments supporting the proposal were gathered and submitted by Landowners for Energy Access and Safe Exploration (LEASE), an organization that was established last year to push for more mineral rights development in the forest.

“Wayne officials have ample support to make a ‘finding of no significant impact’ and move forward with the leasing process,” said LEASE founder Becky Clutter. “Together, we have made it abundantly clear that there is strong support among the people who live and work in southeastern Ohio to develop our federal minerals in Wayne National Forest.”

BLM’s move to consider opening more of the forest to oil and gas development came more than three years after it signed a supplemental information report (SIR) that said an in-depth study it conducted proved that there was no need to amend the forest’s 2006 land and resource management plan or supplement its environmental impact statement (EIS) to address possible surface impacts from unconventional drilling (see Shale Daily, Aug. 28, 2012). The SIR cleared the way for the agency to hold an oil and gas lease auction even after strong opposition from environmental groups and concerned citizens (see Shale Daily, Nov. 21, 2011).

In November, a group of six environmental advocacy groups, including the Sierra Club and the Buckeye Forest Council, challenged the agency’s proposal and called for a full-scale environmental report to be conducted and made public before any decision is made to take bids from oil and gas companies. The BLM also held a series of public meetings in November in the region to highlight the industry’s proposals.

Since the forest started land purchases in 1935, 244,242 acres have been acquired. About 41% of the mineral rights across that acreage are owned by the federal government. According to the BLM, there were 1,275 active vertical wells in the forest as of June 2015, 493 of them are located on federal land. The agency said about 18,800 acres in Washington and Monroe counties, which are both prospective for the Utica Shale, have been identified by the industry as areas of interest. More than 13,000 acres of interest are located farther to the west and south in Athens and Gallia counties, where conventional drilling has been more common.

Supporting comments were submitted by nearly 40 individuals and organizations that have joined LEASE since the BLM’s public hearings in November, including U.S. and state lawmakers; county commissioners; a school district; the Consumer Energy Alliance, and business and labor groups.

U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, a Republican who represents counties in the southeast part of the state, said the federal government has hindered shale development in parts of his district, saying in his comments that some residents have been unable to lease their mineral rights because they’re adjacent to federal land. His comments were echoed by others.

“The main issue here isn’t merely mineral extraction; it’s property rights,” said state Rep. Andy Thompson of Marietta, OH, in Washington County. “Unlike federal lands in the Western United States, the Wayne National Forest is not one large contiguous piece of property, [It] is often next to or surrounding property owned by individual Ohioans. Leasing Wayne National Forest property simply gives private citizens the opportunity, if not the guarantee, to develop the minerals they own.”

In arguing for a full-scale environmental report, organizations opposed to opening the forest to more drilling have said the BLM’s previous study was “poorly conceived” and “shallow,” adding that the SIR and the internal review that led to it violated federal environmental law because it was “written in secret” and excluded public participation.

The BLM has started environmental assessments (EA) to consider whether to lease more parcels in the forest. Following the completion of each EA, the agency said it could approve leasing, not approve leasing or complete an EIS to address the process.