MARIETTA, Ohio (WOIO) - Despite strong opposition from environmental activists, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Tuesday made roughly 719 acres of Ohio's only national forest available for lease by oil-and-gas drilling companies.
The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that the bureau has begun accepting bids on 17 government-owned parcels, auctioning off less than 0.3 percent of the southeast Ohio Wayne National Forest. The land would likely be used for fracking, a process for extracting oil or natural gas from deep underground. The practice is controversial, with many worried about it leading to increases in air pollution, groundwater contamination and other adverse environmental impacts.
The agency had initially been planning to auction off nearly twice as much land, but withdrew the 16 additional parcels before Tuesday's auction began in order to "resolve questions of ownership and existing rights of materials." They reserve the rights to lease those properties at a later time.
Any company which leases a parcel would still be required to obtain a permit before any drilling could begin.
Proponents of fracking say that it is good for the economy and is a safe and clean method of obtaining energy. Shawn Bennett, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, called the leases "a step in the right direction," telling The Columbus Dispatch, "It opens up lands that are required to be leased by several federal statutes."
Environmental advocates have been vocally against the potential of the practice coming to Ohio's national forest, with over 99,000 people signing a petition to stop the auctioning of the forest on Change.org.
"This is Ohio's only national forest," Ohio Environmental Council Executive Director Heather Taylor-Miesle said in a statement. "We need to do all we can to protect it."
An assessment from the Bureau of Land Management determined that the fracking would have no significant environmental impact, with district manager Dean Gettinger writing, "The project does not violate any known federal, state, local or tribal law or requirement imposed for the protection of the environment." However, activists have criticized the report's validity, arguing that it does not do enough to take public opinion into account and that it could underestimate fracking's environmental impacts.
"Among rare plants and abundant wildlife, a large portion of the Wayne runs along the Ohio River, which supplies drinking water to over five million people," reads the petition, organized by Nathaniel McCarthy of Cleveland. "These companies will drill wells, extract oil and leave once the lease is up. But that is still enough time to leak into the Ohio River, poisoning millions of people, just like the [Dakota Access Pipeline] risked."
"This forest breathes, it's alive. The creatures in it are alive," said Kimberly Dawley, a Delaware resident who protested outside the Wayne National Forest headquarters last week, to The Post in Athens. "There are carcinogens in what they are going to inject for the fracking. They have no business taking our land and doing this."
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