The accompanying story discusses proposed regulations that would diminish the role of the National Forest Service in approving oil and gas development in the National Forests. Diminishing the role of the Forest Service also calls into question the role of the Management Plans for the National Forests.
All National Forests are required to have a Land and Resources Management Plan. The Plan sets out the general plan for management of the Forest for the next fifteen years, more or less. The Plan does not approve or disapprove of any specific projects; they must be reviewed individually. Any projects which are proposed must be designed to move the forest towards the desired conditions described in the Forest Plan.
The Plans are, however, a blueprint that the Forest Service draws up to guide its own actions. If it is no longer making decisions on oil and gas development in the National Forest, are those Plans still relevant?
Assuming the Plans are still relevant, the respective Plans of the George Washington National Forest and the Monongahela National Forest treat oil and gas development quit differently.
The Monongahela National Forest last did its Plan in 2006. Even though that puts it close to what is assumed to be the end of its life, there is no new plan on the horizon. Doing a new Plan is a huge job that takes years. Because there has been no public announcement that a new Plan is in the works, it is safe to say that the 2006 Plan will be guiding decisions for the foreseeable future.
At the time of the 2006 Plan, gas drilling was not controversial. While not common, there are gas wells in the Monongahela National Forest. At the time of the Plan, there were thirty to forty. At the time, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) was largely unknown in West Virginia; the wells were the less obtrusive vertical drilling ones that caused dramatically less surface disturbance.
The 2006 Monongahela National Forest Plan recognized that there was drilling in the Forest and that it would continue. It said:
Exploration, development, and production of mineral and energy resources are conducted in an environmentally sound manner. Although some areas (designated wilderness, campgrounds, administrative sites, areas dedicated to recreation activities in a remote setting, and scenic areas, for example) are not available for exploration and development of federally owned minerals, most areas of the Forest remain available to mineral activities. Exploration and development of private mineral rights are consistent with deed terms and law, and make reasonable use of the land surface. Approved operating plans include appropriate mitigation measures. Operations are bonded commensurate with law or the costs of anticipated site reclamation. Sites are returned to a condition consistent with management emphasis and objectives.
The Plan for the George Washington National Forest was a different matter. By the time it came along in 2014 hydraulic fracturing was well known in West Virginia. While gas wells might have been a minor part of Monongahela National Forest planning, they were a source of huge controversy in the George Washington National Forest. There were extensive public comments; politicians weighed in; distant cities whose drinking water originated in the George Washington National Forest had something to say.
The result was a compromise. One proposal would have banned horizontal drilling (and effectively banned hydraulic fracturing) from the entire Forest. Instead of banning horizontal drilling in the entire 1.1 million acre forest, the final Plan allows horizontal drilling on the about 10,000 acres that were under gas lease at the time of the Plan. Although the focus of the controversy was on horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, the Plan also makes the entire Forest, with the exception of these 10,000 acres, unavailable for vertical well drilling as well.
The Forest contains another 167,000 acres where the mineral rights are owned by private parties, not the Forest Service. The Plan does not restrict drilling in those areas; as a result horizontal and vertical drilling on those areas remains a possibility. Not all of the 167,000 acres where mineral rights are owned by private parties are above the Marcellus Shale. As a result, the actual number of acres where Marcellus drilling is a possibility would be considerably smaller, probably less than 100,000.
The approximately 51,000 acres that are congressionally withdrawn from mineral entry (i.e. Wilderness and the Mount Pleasant National Scenic Area) will continue to be legally unavailable for federal oil and gas leasing.