Protesting gas leases in West Virginia: Success for now

Seneca Creek, West Virginia. Photo by Solomon Rodd.

On March 3, The Wilderness Society filed a protest with the Bureau of Land Management, which was planning to auction off a lease that would allow oil and natural gas drilling on the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. The BLM is the leasing agent for all federal lands, including national forests, and a “protest” is a document that allows the public to challenge those leases before they are auctioned off.

The area proposed for leasing included land in the Spruce Knob — Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area and land in the Seneca Creek area that we, and many citizens of West Virginia, had proposed for wilderness designation.

Along with colleagues at the Center for Biological Diversity, the Friends of Blackwater and a number of other local West Virginia environmental groups, we challenged the effects that gas drilling might have on birds, bats and other area wildlife, recreation opportunities, historic resources and the area’s world-class trout fishery.

But the issue closest to my heart in this protest was the possible effects on area water quality, particularly on the drinking water for the people who live in and around the lease area. My drinking water comes from my well and for most of my adult life, no matter where I’ve lived, I’ve relied on well water. I know first hand the worry about its quality and the incredible expense that can result in trying to fix problems when safe drinking water becomes an issue. I’d like to be able to help others to avoid turning on a faucet to find smelly or discolored water and wonder if it’s safe to drink.

Effects on water quality are of a particular concern in the proposed lease area because of its karst topography. The limestone in karst makes it more soluble, which increases the chances that gas drilling could intercept fractures through which groundwater flows. And as is common in many areas of the east, there are lots of people that live around the public land where drilling is often proposed that rely on their wells for safe drinking water. In this small area there are about 40 homes and a church.

Once a lease is auctioned off, it’s a matter of how drilling would occur, not whether it can. The Forest Service is supposed to analyze the effects of oil and gas drilling across the national forest and decide which areas are suitable for this use. But in the case of the Monongahela National Forest that analysis dates back to 1992 and is woefully inadequate in assessing today’s conditions.

We recently received word that we won the protest and these particular parcels have been removed from the next auction. That doesn’t mean that they won’t ever come up for auction again, but we will be vigilant and intend to push the Forest Service for updated analysis. If you’d like to know how you can get involved, drop me a line.

photo: Seneca Creek, West Virginia. Photo by Solomon Rodd.