The U.S. Forest Service held its first public hearing Tuesday night for oil and gas leasing availability on public lands including the LBJ National Grasslands.
The Bureau of Land Management projected drilling on the large swath of protected lands in North and East Texas over the next 20 years, draining more than a billion gallons of water from local water sources.
The meeting at the Decatur Conference Center is one of several planned over the 45-day public comment period before the BLM moves forward with making the 2,300 acres of protected land available for lease to oil and gas companies. Along with the Grasslands in Wise County, the lands include National Forests of Angelina, Sabine, Davy Crockett and Sam Houston and the Caddo National Grasslands in East Texas.
The 45-day public comment period, or “scoping period,” gives the Forest Service an opportunity to make three decisions and send a proposed plan of action recommendations to the BLM: What land will be made available for oil and gas leasing, what stipulations will be applied to those lands and does the Forest Plan need to be amended?
The scoping period ends Oct. 11.
“There are lots and lots and lots of opportunities to be involved, to engage, to give input for this process,” said Robert Potts, the natural resources and planning team leader at the U.S. Forest Service. “This is a kickoff. This is where we identify issues and use those issues to develop alternatives.”
The U.S. Forest Service established the Caddo and LBJ National Grasslands in Texas in the 1930s, comprising more than 38,000 acres with more than 20,000 acres in Wise County.
During the U.S. Forest Service’s presentation Tuesday night, Potts delved into the history of oil and gas in Texas from the 1860s to the improvements in horizontal drilling and well completion techniques in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Wise County’s George Mitchell, who owned 300,000 acres in the Barnett Shale, led the way with many of the improvements. He punched his first fracked well in the county in 1981. He began developing a new fracking-fluid formula and combined it with a horizontal-drilling technique developed offshore. It required massive amounts of ground and surface water to fuel it but kick-started a new oil and gas boom that lasted from the 1990s well into the 2000s. Mitchell’s boom also led to several gas wells appearing in the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas.
As of June 2017, there are 1,204 wells with surface locations within NFGT proclaimed boundary, including 185 gas wells, 269 oil wells and 700 abandoned wells, according to the November 2018 report “Reasonable Foreseeable Development Scenario for Oil and Gas Activities National Forests and Grasslands in Texas” by the U.S. Forest Service.
There are also another 4,694 wells within NFGT proclaimed boundary and includes 1,178 gas wells; 1,001 oil wells and 2,330 abandoned wells. The remaining 185 wells consist of 36 injection wells, 42 salt water disposal wells, 33 pre-productive wells and 74 non-productive wells.
Within the Local Analysis Area, the 1.5-mile buffer, more than 7,000 wells have been drilled with the following breakdown: 1,901 gas wells; 1,381 oil wells and 3,539 abandoned wells while the remaining 270 wells consist of 41 injection wells, 72 salt water disposal wells, 19 pre-productive wells and 138 non-productive wells.
The report indicates that future oil and gas activity will consist primarily of horizontal drilling with a baseline scenario that projects 485 new oil and gas wells, 324 horizontal and 161 vertical or directional for 2018 to 2037. It will impact 2,300 acres and require 1.7 billion gallons of water to drill.
The BLM projection has critics worried. Brandt Mannchen, the chair of the Houston regional group of the Sierra Club, an environmental organization, said, “Wise County residents should be concerned. They face additional Barnett Shale fracking and what that means with regard to water quality, water quantity and the lovely landscape of the LBJ National Grasslands.” Mannchen said Wise County residents should be particularly concerned about the increased heat and how it will affect them and the erratic weather that climate change increases such as rainstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes.
“Let’s face it, we have left our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren a heck of a mess,” he added. “We should help them pay down that debt and make a down payment on cooling off our overheated climate. It is the least we can do to restore their confidence that we really care and will take care of them.”
At the U.S. Forest Service public meeting, Potts highlighted some of the financial incentive behind these wells. The Department of Treasury receives 75 percent of the funds generated from the wells, which includes leasing land and rental space, and the counties get 25 percent. Between 2009 and 2018, the wells generated $106,475,852 for the Treasury Department and $31,184,772 for Texas counties.
Potts said the counties use the money for various purposes.
In 2016, the U.S. Forest Service told the BLM that it was withdrawing its consent to lease NFGT lands due to stakeholder concerns, including insufficient public notification and opportunity for public involvement as well as insufficient environmental analysis. The last time the environmental impacts of oil and gas leasing were evaluated was 1996 and didn’t include the analysis of air pollution impacts or advanced horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing technologies.
The U.S. Forest Service is considering three stipulations to be applied to lands available for future oil and gas leasing: no surface occupancy (NSO), timing limitations (TL) and controlled surface use (CSU).
Some of the proposed actions being considered include converting CSU stipulations to NSO stipulations for natural heritage botanical areas and reservoirs.
“We need to ensure that whatever decision we make in regards to stipulations that they are only as restricting as necessary to protect the resources that the stipulations are applied to and no more,” Potts said.
Potts reminded people to submit comments early and be sure to describe specific issues as simply and plainly as possible.
Information on how to comment can be found at wcmess.com/grasslands.