Environment

A coalition of environmental groups is formally protesting the upcoming auction of federal lands in Western Kentucky for possible oil and gas drilling.

The administrative protest was filed last week by groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Kentucky Conservation Committee, the Sierra Club and others.

At issue is the proposed auction of 184 acres in Union County. The land is part of the Sloughs Wildlife Management Area; in total, the WMA is more than 11,000 acres owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and licensed to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Bureau of Land Management wants to auction off the land’s oil and gas leases in September, though they note that the leases won’t include any surface disturbance.

“The purpose of the Proposed Action is to support the development of oil and natural gas resources that are essential to meeting the nation’s future needs for energy,” the BLM noted in its National Environmental Policy Act review published in April. “It is the policy of the BLM as mandated by various laws … to make mineral resources available for development to meet national, regional, and local needs. The oil and gas leasing program managed by the BLM encourages the sustainable development of domestic oil and gas reserves, which reduces the dependence of the United States on foreign sources of energy as part of its multiple-use and sustainable yield mandate.”

In the environmental assessment, the BLM doesn’t find any significant effects from allowing oil and gas leasing on part of the Sloughs WMA. But environmental groups disagree, and also contend the process by which the government arrived at those conclusions was flawed.

The groups’ administrative protest cites concerns over threats to the habitats of threatened bat species, as well as other sensitive species like migratory birds, bald eagles and a large great blue heron rookery.

“Wetlands are very sensitive,” said Kentucky Conservation Committee Executive Director Lane Boldman. “This is a significant birding area, lots of waterfowl. It’s renowned by the birding and hunting constituents.”

The groups also are concerned about the effect that releasing more oil and gas would have on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, and say the BLM didn’t provide adequate public notice of the auction. They want the agency to withdraw the leasing proposal.

But geologist Brandon Nuttall of the Kentucky Geological Survey said that overall, it may not matter.

“In the long run it may be a moot point,” he said. “It may be that, yeah, BLM is going to offer this property, these minerals. But it may be they don’t get anyone to bid on it, at all.”

In 2015 and 2016, there have only been three oil or gas wells permitted in Union County, and no wells drilled, according to KYGS data. But the area does have numerous legacy oil and gas wells, some of which are still producing. And a 2009 KYGS report prepared in response to state legislation found there was some potential for tapping the oil and gas reserves under the Slough WMA.

Nuttall said there does seem to be potential for oil and gas development in the area, but the current low oil and gas prices could mean it won’t be worth it for anyone to tap.

“In the era of $80-100 oil, somebody probably would have said ‘oh, there’s a lot of nearby production, we’ll see what we can do,’” he said. “In the $40-50 oil era, in my opinion, it’s going to be a paperwork nightmare. To deal with Fish and Wildlife, Corps of Engineers and the BLM. And there’s not many Kentucky operators that do that.”

The Bureau of Land Management did not return a request for comment.

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL. She is also Enterprise Editor.