In much of the East, national forests were created from privately owned land, and in many cases the mineral rights remained private. The result is a legal gray area.
The documents unearthed by PEER include a from an Interior Department solicitor saying that while the government cannot prevent a leaseholder from developing the gas, "the Forest Service may exercise its discretion in approving the location of structures on the surface to establish reasonable conditions and mitigation measures to protect federal surface resources, including endangered species."
PEER to this legal problem in 2009, saying the Forest Service was not prepared to handle mineral rights across 34 eastern states and, in the case of the Fernow gas well, avoided addressing the legal uncertainties.
"In the face of ambiguity, they just got out of the way," Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, told ProPublica. Ruch said the documents PEER found showed that Forest Service administrators had more authority than they were ready to acknowledge.
The Fernow well is a vertical well and did not require the high volumes of hydraulic fracturing fluids that are commonly injected into the horizontal wells drilled in the Marcellus Shale, which underlies much of West Virginia. The Fernow well was fracked, but with much less fluid.
Scientists Surprised Trees Lost Their Leaves
According to the report, a accidentally sprayed that fracking fluid onto surrounding land and trees, browning leaves and killing ground cover. After drilling was complete, , which owns the well, also sprayed some 80,000 gallons of wastewater into the forest. The briney liquid shocked about 150 trees into shedding their leaves.
A year later, half of those trees still had no foliage. This disposal method, called land application, is legal in West Virginia with conventional wells, Schuler said, but is not allowed for wells drilled in the Marcellus Shale.
Schuler said the scientists were surprised that the trees lost their leaves. Drillers normally spray the waste over a larger area but the scientists asked Berry to contain the application, which meant spreading the salts and chemicals on a smaller piece of land. The soil in that area was left with high levels of chloride, calcium and sodium. Animals were attracted to the area, likely because of the high salt content of the soil.
David Berry, president of Berry Energy, said his company repaired the damage to the roads. He lamented the harm done by the waste disposal.
"We always used a good bit of real estate and never had that type of result or impact," he said. "If I’d known, I would have demanded more area to do our land application."
Berry said his company operates about 130 wells in West Virginia and holds another lease for some 6,700 acres elsewhere in the Monongahela National Forest.
The report's authors said more research is necessary and that their findings should not be extrapolated to other wells in the region.
"There are pros and cons to the development of natural gas and there are environmental impacts as we document," Schuler said. "It’s going to be developed and it would behoove us to do it in an environmentally sustainable way, and that’s what we're trying to begin to understand."
Image: Fernow Experimental Forest in W. Va. by Brian M. Powell
Republished with permission.