More Drilling in the National Forests?

By John McFerrin

The United States Department of Agriculture (parent agency of the United States Forest Service) has proposed new regulations that would diminish the role of the Forest Service in decisions about oil and gas drilling on National Forest land.

Currently, the Bureau of Land Management (a part of the Department of the Interior) controls and permits all federal mineral rights, including those below U.S. Forest Service land. The Forest Service, however, has to approve all above-ground operations and construction in national forests.

The proposed regulations would change that.  They would give the Bureau of Land Management the final say on approval of gas development, even in the National Forests. The proposed rule would remove environmental considerations as criteria for decisions to approve plans, limiting the Forest Service to protecting only specific, named natural resources. Gone would be opportunities to address climate change or protect vital wild places.

The proposed rule also gives the Forest Service the option of skipping some environmental reviews and diminishes the opportunities for public participation.

So, does all this portend more oil and gas drilling in the National Forests, including the George Washington and the Monongahela?  That is certainly the way the political wind is blowing.  The announcement by the Department of Agriculture (parent of the Forest Service) of the proposed rule cites Executive Order 13783, Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth, signed by President Trump on March 28, 2017. It declared that it is in the national interest to promote clean and safe development of the Nation’s energy resources while avoiding regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production.

Beyond the politics of the matter, the answer is found in other big questions: who is the Secretary of the Interior?  Who is the Secretary of Agriculture?  What is the price of natural gas?  What is the market for plastic like?  How much have renewable energy sources developed?

A big unknown is the details of the geology of the Monongahela and George Washington National Forests.  Because of geological factors, there is some doubt about the presence of Marcellus Shale gas in the George Washington National Forest or the Monongahela National Forest.  Any natural gas which is present would have been formed hundreds of millions of years ago.  It would only still be there to be developed if there is an impermeable layer of rock above it that has kept it in place.  Otherwise, over millions of years it would have gradually found its way to the surface and be lost to the atmosphere.

In the hundreds of millions of years since the gas that is (or was) in the Marcellus Shale was formed there have been collisions of continents and other geologic events that have resulted in folding and cracking of the Marcellus Shale and the rock layers above it.  This may have resulted in cracks that allowed whatever gas was in the Marcellus Shale to escape.

            On the other hand, if the gas is still there the political forces are aligning to allow somebody to drill for it.