The burst of activity has sparked a public debate over how to reconcile the different uses of national forests.
The office was scheduled to auction the rights to energy exploration on nearly 90,000 acres of Forest Service land in four states — Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi — next week, but announced Friday it would delay the Alabama auction in the face of widespread protest there. Meanwhile, officials at Virginia’s George Washington Forest are embroiled in a controversy over whether to ban any future horizontal drilling in the forest, as they proposed last year, or leave open the possibility for companies in the future.
The intense competition in recent years to lease private land for a form of oil and gas drilling known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has made federal lands overlying shale deposits more attractive even if they might not be developed for years, said Kevin Book, managing director for research at Clearview Energy Partners. With the exception of 38,174 acres in Alabama’s Conecuh National Forest, all of the Eastern U.S. forest acreage leased since 2011 lies over shale deposits.
“Every area overlying shale resources is being leased, whether it’s in the West or the East,” Book said. “When the race is on and in the heat of battle, the price of private land is very expensive. The federal government makes it slower and more difficult to do [drilling], but by comparison these are relatively cheap leases.”
Private land overlying shale deposits can sell for thousands of dollars an acre; land in the most recent BLM forest leases averaged $47 per acre.
Robert Bonnie, senior adviser to the secretary of agriculture for environment and climate, said Friday that the government decided to delay the auction of 42,965 acres in Alabama’s Talladega National Forest because “both the Forest Service and the BLM recognize the need to solicit public input on this.” But he said the government would press ahead with energy exploration elsewhere on national forests.
“What we balance is conservation and resource extraction,” Bonnie said.
“Forest Service areas are multiple-use lands,” said Dan Naatz, vice president for federal resources at the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “Our concern is Forest Service areas are being more and more managed like national parks, rather than for multiple use.”
But environmentalists, as well as some officials in regions that have experienced an uptick in lease applications, said the small BLM office in Springfield overseeing forests in 31 Eastern states is ill-equipped to evaluate the requests it is receiving from prospective land buyers.