COLUMBUS, Ohio― A federal judge blocked new oil and gas leasing and fracking in Ohio’s Wayne National Forest late Monday, following a ruling last year rebuking the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service for failing to consider threats to public health, endangered species and watersheds before opening more than 40,000 acres of the forest to fracking.
Pending completion of new environmental reviews, Monday’s order blocks new leases on the Wayne, prohibits new drilling permits and surface disturbance on existing leases, and prohibits water withdrawals from the Little Muskingum River for already-approved drilling.
“This is great news for the future of Ohio’s only national forest,” said Taylor McKinnon, a senior campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re grateful the judge recognized the damage fracking could do to this spectacular forest. The order will protect our climate, endangered wildlife and drinking water for millions of people.”
U.S. District Judge Michael Watson said the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management had “demonstrated a disregard for the different types of impacts caused by fracking in the Forest. The agencies made decisions premised on a faulty foundation.”
“This is a victory for public health, for outdoor recreation, and for our climate. The court’s ruling means that, at least for the foreseeable future, a significant portion of the Wayne National Forest will be safe from oil and gas development. And this victory may ultimately be permanent given the Biden administration’s recent moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on federal public lands,” said Nathan Johnson, public lands director for the Ohio Environmental Council. “The Wayne is a public forest that we all own. Keeping its air and water clean, as well as its views intact, is a win that we can all celebrate.”
In May 2017 conservation groups sued the agencies over plans to permit fracking in the Wayne, saying federal officials had relied on an outdated plan and ignored significant environmental threats before approving the fracking.
“This victory, like the Wayne National Forest, belongs to all of us,” said Becca Pollard with the Sierra Club. “Permitting fracking anywhere is a threat to our health and clean air and water, and we're relieved to see the judge rule in favor of protecting the forest. We look forward to working together to ensure that this decision is made permanent and we may continue to enjoy and explore Wayne National Forest."
The BLM’s leasing plan would industrialize Ohio’s only national forest through road-building, well pads and gas lines, the lawsuit said. This would destroy Indiana bat habitat, pollute watersheds and water supplies that support millions of people, and endanger other federally protected species in the area.
Monday’s order comes as the Biden administration has paused federal oil and gas leasing, both onshore and offshore, pending a long-overdue climate review of the federal fossil fuel programs.
Fossil fuel production on public lands causes about a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. Peer-reviewed science estimates that a nationwide federal fossil fuel leasing ban would reduce carbon emissions by 280 million tons per year, ranking it among the most ambitious federal climate-policy proposals in recent years.
Oil, gas and coal extraction includes mines, well pads, gas lines, roads and other infrastructure that destroys habitat for wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Oil spills and other harms from offshore drilling have done immense damage to ocean wildlife and coastal communities. Fracking and mining also pollute watersheds and waterways that provide drinking water to millions of people.
Federal fossil fuels that have not been leased to industry contain up to 450 billion tons of potential climate pollution; those already leased to industry contain up to 43 billion tons. Pollution from already-leased fossil fuels on federal lands, if fully developed, would exhaust the U.S. carbon budget for keeping the world below a 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature increase.