US Forest Service seeks ‘streamlined’ permit process for oil and gas development

October 2, 2018

A public comment period ends Oct. 15 for a plan by the U.S. Forest Service to accelerate the permitting process for oil and gas development in the 44 national forests where drilling is authorized, and West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest is among them.

The Forest Service announced earlier this month that it is planning to revise “outdated and inefficient regulations for oil and gas resources” on national forest lands.

“This is one of many efforts that our agency is undertaking to focus on our priority of regulatory reform,” Interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said in the announcement. “Our goal is to make our processes as simple and efficient as possible while ensuring a sustainable environment for future generations.”

About 60 active gas wells, most of them storage wells, are currently found in the Mon. None of the wells were horizontally drilled, as is common in Marcellus Shale production areas.

The plan to “update, clarify and streamline internal processes related to environmental review and permitting,” as it is described in the Federal Register, was undertaken to clear a backlog of nearly 2,000 pending Expressions of Interest to acquire oil and gas leases. The pending leases involve nearly 2 million acres of national forest lands.

The proposed streamlining would make possible “quicker leasing decisions” for oil and gas developers who, under existing rules, sometimes wait five to 10 years for final leasing decisions to be made, according to the Forest Service’s notice in the Federal Register. The rule changes would “promote domestic oil and gas production by allowing industry to begin production more quickly.”

According to the Federal Register notice, the rule changes would include:

• Updating regulatory provisions regarding lease stipulations, waivers, exceptions and modifications,

• Clarifying review and approval procedures for surface plans of operations,

• Updating language regarding operators’ responsibilities to protect the environment, and clarifying language regarding inspections and compliance.

According to the Forest Service, more than $1.2 billion worth of oil and gas was produced on national forest lands during the 2017 fiscal year. From that. $145 million in offset payments were made to state and local governments.

“We want to strengthen communities and provide jobs,” Christiansen said. “At the same time, we are committed to protecting water supplies, supporting aquatic and wildlife habitat, and ensuring a sustainable environment for future generations.”

More than 280 billion cubic feet of federally owned natural gas have been estimated to exist in the Mon, where 62 percent of the natural gas rights are owned by the government, with the remaining 38 percent privately held.

“Our national forests matter more than private industry’ profits.” said Taylor McKin-non. of the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement released about the proposed rule change, which he termed “an appalling Trump administration proposal”

The Forest Service, he said, “is abdicating its mission to protect these wild places to ram through whatever industries want.”

No gas lease auctions have been held for Monongahela National Forest land since 2009, when a plan to sell gas leases there drew controversy, and the auction plan was withdrawn.

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