The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has temporarily delayed its plans to auction off the mineral rights to over 4,500 acres of property in the Blue Rock State Forest in Muskingum County, Ohio. The decision came just hours after news of the auction went public, catching many observers by surprise, including officials from the Ohio Department of National Resources (ODNR).
The Bureau of Land Management originally announced that the ODNR had consented to the sale, but ODNR spokeswoman Bethany McCorkle told reporters that they never received the Bureau’s environmental assessment report and had not been notified of the 30-day public comment period, which officially closed in April. No public comments were submitted prior to the deadline. According to BLM’s Decision Record, “[t]he [National Forest Service] engaged in external scoping with the State of Ohio via e-mail correspondence, data-sharing, a conference call between the BLM and the [ODNR] on July 12, 2012, and a site visit on July 31, 2012, in which BLM and ODNR staff participated.”
Despite the apparent miscommunication, the BLM has not abandoned its plans to sell the mineral rights, but rather delay it to allow for more input from the public (and perhaps to market the public auction to facilitate more robust participation from the oil and gas industry).
“The next step is to get all the information to make sure we are on the same page,” said ODNR’s McCorkle. “We’ve committed to working with (the BLM) and we think it could be a good partnership.” McCorkle identifies potential threats to the forest and wildlife as among the ODNR’s chief concerns moving forward, although the BLM has already issued a statement of no significant impact.
After the initial outcry, most environmental groups applauded the BLM’s decision to delay the auction and seek additional public comment, while others have strong opposition to government’s decision to allow for oil and gas development in the Blue Rock Forest. Many in industry believe that allowing for oil and gas development on federal and state-owned land is critical to the growth of the oil and gas sector in Ohio (and, in turn, strong economic growth in the State). As a result, it is reasonable to expect strong support for the drilling on state and federal lands in the State of Ohio.
The federal government originally acquired the land as part of a New Deal program during the 1930s, but later deeded the surface rights to the land back to the State of Ohio. The federal government, however, retains a majority interest in the mineral rights. Federal oil and gas leasing programs are governed by the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920, the Mineral Leasing Act for Acquired Lands of 1947, as amended, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) of 1976, and the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
The public auction—spurred by Expressions of Interest (EOIs) filed with the BLM by private industry—had been scheduled to take place in December. So far, no new dates have been proposed by the BLM, but the extra time and increased publicity may result in more participation, both from the public and the oil and gas industry.