This story got me to look closer at planning for fracking on national forests. The reason the BLM can say this in their EA is arguably because a lease does not “authorize surface disturbing activities.” Here’s the way it works.
“The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposes to lease up to approximately 40,000 federally-owned minerals located in the Wayne National Forest, Athens Ranger District, Marietta Unit in Monroe, Noble, and Washington Counties in Ohio. This approximate acreage figure represents the total amount of federally-owned minerals that could be nominated and potentially be made available for leasing on the Marietta Unit. Industry uses the BLM Expression of Interest (EOI) process to nominate federal minerals for leasing. To date, industry has submitted over fifty EOIs for parcels located on the Marietta Unit totaling approximately 18,000 acres.”
“The proposed leases would provide the lessee(s) exclusive rights to explore and develop oil and gas reserves on the leases but do not authorize surface disturbing activities. Although there would be no surface disturbance from the action of leasing, the Environmental Assessment (EA) analyzes a reasonably foreseeable development scenario (RFDS) to address the anticipated environmental effects from potential future oil and gas development. Before a lessee or operator conducts any surface disturbing activities related to the development of these leases, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) must first approve an application for permit to drill (APD) as specified in 43 CFR 3162. In an APD, an applicant proposes to drill the well subject to the terms and conditions of the lease. Upon receipt of an APD, the BLM conducts an onsite inspection with the applicant and the landowner. The Forest Service and BLM would also conduct additional site-specific analysis in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the appropriate consultations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) prior to approving the APD.”
So for example, here are the effects of the proposal on “Recreation, Land Use and Noise:” “No direct impacts from leasing. Minor, short- and longterm changes to land use from reasonably foreseeable development activities due to conversion of undeveloped areas to areas that support oil and gas development. Future reasonably foreseeable effects minimized by stipulations and other Forest Service measures for protecting recreation resources. Noise levels would lessen during the production phase.” Another example – effects on air resources would be mitigated by “Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), best management practices (BMPs) and conditions of approval (COAs) at time of drilling.”
Where I come from, NEPA requires accounting for “reasonably foreseeable effects,” and I think that is what is being described here. And I think they meet the significance criteria in NEPA to require an EIS. I don’t see how BLM can rely on mitigating effects through “stipulations and other Forest Service measures” – unless they are known, in-place mandatory forest plan standards, or if they have been incorporated into the terms of the lease. The EA cites these requirements: “The following notifications and stipulations implement the standards and guidelines of the Wayne National Forest’s 2006 Land and Resource Management Plan (Forest Plan). These are in addition to the standard lease terms for oil and gas leases (BLM Form 3100-11).” All other sources of potential mitigation would have to be considered speculative.
There is another NEPA process at the permitting stage where these effects may be addressed. The EA states, “The lessee is hereby made aware that all post lease operations will be subject to appropriate environmental review and may be limited or denied by no surface occupancy stipulations.” In reality, once a lease is signed, what discretion does the Forest Service have to deny or severely restrict a permit? Maybe someone could refresh my memory on how this has all been sorted out in court.