Photo by Max Catalano
On Dec. 13, the auction began. Nineteen parcels of land in Wayne National Forest were leased to the highest bidder for development of oil and natural gas wells. From an initial starting price of $2 per acre, some bids climbed to over $5,800 per acre. By the sale’s end, six drilling companies won the rights to extract resources from the leased lands. In total, the companies spent $1.7 million, with the top bidder spending more than $900,000 for 11 parcels.
For Heather Cantino, a member of the Athens County Fracking Action Network (ACFAN), the day was ordinary. She had been sending studies about fracking — once 24 emails in one night — to Kathleen Atkinson, the Eastern Region regional forester, in the hope that she would pull the parcels.
“By then, we had done all we could,” Cantino says. “It’s like Election Day, you know; you’ve done all you can.”
Shaking Things Up
The auction marked the end of a six-year effort for activists in Athens County, who since 2011, have resisted attempts by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to lease land in Ohio’s only national forest for hydraulic fracturing.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method of oil and natural gas extraction. Drillers inject fluid into a well at very high pressure, which causes the surrounding rock to crack and allows oil and natural gas to escape into the well.
Cantino has been through several waves of environmental issues in Athens County. In spring 2011, she learned about fracking through her involvement with the Buckeye Forest Council and her own research on the effects of fracking, injection wells and pipelines. She and other activists worked to educate private landowners about the effects of leasing their land for fracking.
In November 2011, the BLM decided to auction off 3,000 acres of Wayne National Forest land in Athens, Gallia and Perry counties. The auction was set to take place in December 2012.
“We learned about a threat to the Wayne with potential leasing — there were parcels actually in the Athens district of the Wayne that were slated for auction,” Cantino says. “And in the process of organizing in our community to get them to stop, ACFAN was born.”
Protests poured in from all sides. The Athens City Council, the Athens County Commissioners and Ohio University President Roderick McDavis, on behalf of Ohio University, all wrote letters to the BLM to express concern over potential unknown effects from fracking.
Almost a full year before the auction in November 2011, the Forest Service requested that the BLM pull the parcels from the auction. Anne Carey, who was the Wayne
National Forest supervisor at the time, announced that the Forest Service would review the Forest Plan to make sure it thoroughly covered the new technology.
“Conditions have changed since the 2006 Forest Plan was developed,” Carey says in a 2011 press release that discussed the review of the Forest Plan. “The technology used in the Utica & Marcellus Shale formations need to be studied to see if potential effects to the surface are significantly different than those identified in the Forest Plan.”
Back On The Auction Block
In 2015, the BLM announced it was considering the lands for auction once again; it had reviewed the Forest Plan and found it sufficient. The public got a chance to express their opinions and learn more about the auction during three meetings held in Marietta, Athens and Ironton counties. The Athens County meeting was held in November 2015.
Between the end of April and the end of May 2016, the BLM opened its draft Environmental Assessment (EA) and unsigned Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for public comment. Both documents assess the potential environmental consequences of leasing the area. A public review period followed this process to identify additional issues or introduce new information for consideration.
The Final EA and signed FONSI accompanied the announcement of the auction on Oct. 14. initiating another 30-day protest period. The BLM allowed citizens to protest the inclusion of specific parcels at the auction. A Change.org petition against the auction reached 92,000 signatures by the Nov. 14 cutoff for public comments, and as of Jan. 25, the petition has surpassed 100,000 signatures. Although the BLM rejected all protests, it pulled 16 of the original 33 parcels due to questions of land ownership and existing mineral rights.
The four companies that bought the majority of leasing rights in the forest have headquarters out of state: Eclipse Resources, Flat Rock Development, PetroGas Co. and Gulfport Energy Corporation.
Whether additional lands will be auctioned in the Athens and Ironton forest districts is uncertain. The BLM website reports the BLM received formal expressions of interest for lands in the other two sections of Wayne National Forest. According to a webpage for the Athens Unit, last updated in January 2016, the BLM is considering leasing approximately 3,150 acres, some of which will be in Athens County.
The page projects that an initial Environmental Assessment will take place during the 2017 fiscal year, but a spokeswoman for the BLM says the process has been delayed and no longer has an official schedule.
The Right To Legislate
Bringing the issue back to Athens would present its own challenges.
In the time between the failed listing in 2011 and the 2016 auction, a group known as the Athens Bill of Rights Committee (ABORC) pushed for anti-fracking efforts at both the city and county levels.
Dick McGinn, a former associate professor of linguistics at Ohio, founded the group in 2012. Its mission is to push back against fracking and injection wells from a legislative perspective, engaging in “municipal civil disobedience.”
“We may pass an ordinance that goes against state law, for example,” McGinn says. “Well, we’ll just go ahead and do that anyway. That’s our strategy.”
McGinn worked overseas in southeast Asia, where he saw firsthand what he refers to as “exploitation of the environment” by governments and large companies. In Athens, fracking struck him as a similar issue and he became involved in local anti-fracking efforts.
Upon facing reluctance from the Athens City Council to pass legislation banning fracking within the city limits in 2011 and 2012, McGinn formed the ABORC to put the matter into the hands of the Athens citizens.
In 2013, the ABORC attempted to introduce a ballot measure that would ban fracking within a 20-mile radius of the city of Athens. The Athens County Board of Elections (BoE) ultimately removed the measure because it exceeded the city’s jurisdiction.
The ABORC followed up in 2014 with another initiative banning fracking only within the city limits. That measure successfully passed with 78 percent of voters voting for the measure.
The following year, the ABORC changed its name to reflect its new, broader mission.
The new Athens County Bill of Rights Committee (ACBORC) wanted to establish a charter, a document similar to a constitution for local government, in Athens County. It collaborated with the Ohio Community Rights Network, which works toward similar charter legislation in counties throughout Ohio.
The charter would enact home-rule, which would allow the county broader power to effectively ban injection wells by targeting the water used in the fracking. According to the charter, corporations and government could not “deposit, store, treat, inject, dispose of, transport or process” any water or chemical mixture related to fracking.
Although the ACBORC collected enough signatures to have its initiative on the November 2015 ballot, the Athens County BoE denied the measure. That led to a lengthy court battle that wound its way up to the Ohio Supreme Court, which culminated in the measure not being put on the ballot. Even after revisions, the charter proposed in 2016 was also knocked down by the BoE and the secretary of state.
Given that the BoE, the secretary of state and the Ohio Supreme Court all cited different reasons in their denials of the charter, McGinn believes the government is willing to say anything to prevent the charter from going on the ballot.
“They can say that the charter’s invalid because it does not include a recipe for lasagna. I mean, they could say that,” he says. “That would stop it! And we’d have to appeal it in court. And of course, they’re right; it doesn’t! But the question is who would ever want to have that in a charter?”
Raising The Call
Despite the setbacks with the charter initiative, McGinn and the ACBORC are taking time to regroup and decide their next move.
“You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow, you know. We’re in the fight,” he says. “So, let’s say we’re running a 10-mile marathon here and we’re at the sixth mile. … We’re still in the race.”
He hopes the election of President Donald Trump will bring people to his cause, as calls and petitions to the White House may no longer be an effective strategy.
“It’s way too early to call success or failure, because right now, you’ve got a new president,” he says. “You know that changes a lot of people’s thinking about the importance of local action, rather than trying to beg the government do something.”
Cantino and ACFAN plan to follow a similar strategy based on continuing education about fracking’s effects and mobilizing the resentment growing on social media.
“I think the Wayne, the FONSI really woke up a lot of the people through social media about the threat, and I think we will build on that growing awareness,” she says. “… [And] I think there’s a lot of activism that will build, that is building, based on people coming together at Standing Rock.”
And ACFAN is gearing up for a new charge, as well. On Jan. 13, the BLM announced a new auction, scheduled for March 23, for an additional 21 plots of land in the Marietta district of Wayne National Forest, launching a new 30-day protest period for the approximately 1,186 acres of land. Seven days later, ACFAN raised a new call to action, ready and willing to take up the fight again.