Here is an op-ed from the 21st, “Explanation needed: Why are we selling oil and gas leases in Talladega National Forest?”
Although the safeguards and regulations — if put in place and adhered to — do seem to promise that any drilling will be conducted as environmentally friendly as possible, this page is waiting for a better explanation of why the leasing is being done in the first place.
Considering the rising price of oil and gas, finding new supplies would seem a justification; however, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service told The Star that it was unlikely that much of the land would ever be drilled.
If that is the case, if there is not much chance oil or gas could be profitably extracted, then why lease the land and raise fears and concerns that are currently rising?
Is this a way to raise money for a financially strapped agency, or to help reduce the national deficit?
And why was there so little notification that the leasing would take place? Calhoun County Commissioner Tim Hodges, in whose district some of the land lies, did not know of the plan until it was announced. Courtesy, if nothing else, should at least require that local officials be told of what was in the offing.
As so often happens when a federal agency decides to do something, the need to explain those actions seems of little importance. This adds to the widely held belief that bureaucrats do things because they can, and the public be damned.
Rather than create another case of agency insensitivity, the BLM and the Forest Service need to step back, delay the sale and explain to the public why their plan is good for those who own the land — keeping in mind that a “National Forest” belongs to the nation, not to the agencies that oversee it.
Note from Sharon: I thought oil and gas leasing occurred due to Congress’s (elected officials) intentions, and the agencies are following through on the results of energy legislation. Apparently they decided that the leasing program is “good for those who own the land.” There does seem to be more controversy over energy uses of public lands in the east than the west, although there is plenty in the west as well.
10 thoughts on “Why Lease Oil and Gas in National Forests?”
Imagine…the FS failed to notify the public of something so important as this. Sounds familiar to us folks in McKenzie Bridge, OR…that mild mannered little thining project called the Goose Project. The FS is very sorry they didn’t let the community know and promise that they have learned a lesson and it won’t happen again. Humph…Jerry Gilmour
(I see a pattern here)
For the most part, national forests in the East would prefer not to lease oil and gas wells but as Sharon says, it’s not really up to them. The forests don’t have the funding or staffing to deal with the administration of the leases and there is controversy over the approriate NEPA and just what the Forest can require from leasees. The Administration via the BLM (the agency that administers the oil and gad leases) has been pushing for the forests to do more.
Jim, this is not an official position, but I doubt whether many national forests out west are enthused about doing this..especially with the declines in funding for these activities (NFMG). Don’t know how Congress can say “yes it’s important to have energy” but “you don’t get money to do it” at the same time..but I guess that’s true of a lot of things.
This is not an official position either, but when I worked in Region 8 I was very supportive of the forests who wanted to drag their feet on leasing, to the dismay of the regional lands and minerals director. There’s no way that any additional funds to the forests outweigh the dollar or environmental costs.
Here is a relevant comment made on my NEPA is Not the Problem post back in 2007:
The problem, as I point out in the post, is that “doing NEPA,” as if it were a side-show accompanying what an agency has predetermined to be “good projects,” is a far different endeavor than what the National Environmental Policy Act requires: analysis of potential environmental effects of a proposed action.
Admittedly, the problem is shared. Many in the Congress (when acting in their “pork barreling” rather than their “public interest” roles) don’t want much oversight of initiatives that have their fingerprints all over them– often via appropriation bills (and riders) language. And the Administration (no matter which) seem always prone to push some agendas that seem too-much weighted by what some call “the selfish pleading of special interests.”
As you know all too well the history of NEPA in the Forest Service has been a progression over the years:
1. Ignore it.
2. Do as little as possible.
3. Get sued and lose, then try to fix all the technical problems while still putting forward projects that many people did not support.
4. Beef up NEPA documents into huge tomes in a effort to meet all the new legal challenges.
Finally, today in a few places, NEPA is now done in support of projects that have had considerable up front collaboration and are well supported. The analysis and documentation can actually be scaled back when there is little threat of a lawsuit.
In other places it’s the same old story. I know of an old timber sale project (on a forest which I won’t name) that has been around since before 2003 when the forest was sued successfully over MIS deficiencies. It was abandoned then subsequently resurrected and today appears in the SOPA with an implementation date that keeps slipping further out. It was not a good project 10 years ago and it still isn’t even if the NFMA issues have been fixed. I’m guessing that the forest has sunk costs for staff time and court costs of at perhaps $750,000 with nothing to show for it except “good” NEPA.
I once had a planner (who later went on to a very high position in the Forest Service) tell me that “NEPA doesn’t require us to make good decisions, just to document the decisions we make.” I was so stunned, I was at a loss for how to reply. She really felt that NEPA was just a procedural requirement.
Yep, Jim. NEPA compliance is a pretty big mess and has been for a very long time. But I understand what your planner acquaintance said. At the agency level NEPA has been interpreted pretty much a procedural requirement. That’s the way it has been taught, and that’s the way government attorneys usually talk about it. The focus is usually only on Section 102, the procedural stuff. That said, it is incumbent on agencies, acting in good faith as representative of the American public to work toward the higher purposes of NEPA, as reflected in NEPA’s section 101:
Sorry to kinda hi-jack this post but…………I have a few questions/comments…….
“Finally, today in a few places, NEPA is now done in support of projects that have had considerable up front collaboration and are well supported. The analysis and documentation can actually be scaled back when there is little threat of a lawsuit.”
Ok, that’s what a lot of us are striving for…can someone please point me in the direction/link to an analysis that has been “scaled back” as a result of upfront collaboration where there is little threat of a lawsuit? I’m specifically interested in vegetation management projects….
“I once had a planner (who later went on to a very high position in the Forest Service) tell me that “NEPA doesn’t require us to make good decisions, just to document the decisions we make.” I was so stunned, I was at a loss for how to reply. She really felt that NEPA was just a procedural requirement.”
Not sure why you were stunned…NEPA IS a process, not a tool. It’s not like it’s a magic eight ball or anything…
Dave, before you go off on me I’d offer that your “NEPA is not the problem” link has been very instructive over the years.
Perhaps I was “raised” in a different school of NEPA, but the process should be fairly black and white (as in not the tool for deliberation, rather for displaying effects of a [hopefully] well vetted proposed action). Of course we’d all agree that the PA can’t be so narrowly defined as to preclude a viable range of alternatives and all that…….
My personal take on things is that, for a number of reasons, the Agency has, in a lot if cases strayed from devoting the upfront work necessary to develop a “really good” proposed action and instead launched into a project (and NEPA) half baked to satisfy the political appetite du-jour (fuels, catastrophic fire reduction, “restoration”, etc.).
So what about the legally/ethically/morally developed projects that have broad support??? I’ve opined before that broad public support (collaboration) matters less than the “bomb proofing” of the NEPA document from those who choose not to participate upfront but rather choose to negotiate (in appeals) and/or litigate.
What’s the right course?
Perhaps NEPA is just a process in one strict sense, but as Dave points out that interpretation ignores the intent of the law. If we’re going to spend so much time and money on NEPA, wouldn’t it make sense to make it part of a collaborative approach to decision-making rather than just an expensive hoop to jump through? I’ve never bought into the narrow interpretation of NEPA espoused by most OGJ attorneys. In their defense, I guess that they believe it’s their job to protect the Forest Service from itself when it might be inclined to require doing more than the very minimum that a law specifically mandates. This is the same philosophy that leads to conveniently ignoring the part of ESA that mandates an affirmative duty for Federal agencies to recover listed species not just avoid listing. I don’t’ think that most Forest Service employees are even aware of that requirement.
You might want to look at the documentation for some of the thinning and burning projects in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, or Arkansas. They do a lot of that work there with few lawsuits. Many of those who collaborate on these projects aren’t just “not opposing” them, they are active supporters who want to see them implemented. They can be a force for discouraging those on the extremes from fighting a project. Consequently, while NEPA and NFMA requirements must be met, I’ll think you’ll find that the documentation doesn’t have to be quite as “bombproof.”
Dave, I think section 101 is great. However, reasonable people can disagree about the the below statement:
“to use all practicable means and measures, including financial and technical assistance, in a manner calculated to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.”
in terms of exactly what it means to be in
“productive harmony.. and fulfill the requirements.”
And the post was about the natural resource development of oil and gas, not about the fact that you are doing NEPA on it.. not sure how we got to that.