Pawnee National Grassland Oil and Gas Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is the current oil and gas program on the PNG?
A: There are approximately 60 active oil and gas wells on the PNG. Much of the development seen when visiting the Pawnee National Grassland is taking place on private land.

Q: Are the mineral rights under the PNG private or federal?
A: Both private and Federal mineral rights exist under the Pawnee National Grassland.

  • 100% Privately Held Rights: 58,113 acres (30%)
  • Mixed Private and Federal Rights: 63,182 acres (32.8%)
  • 100% Federal Rights: 71,925 acres (37.2%)

Q: Why has the USFS used a Categorical Exclusion (CE)  for NEPA documentation for the authorization of some types of oil and gas proposals recently? What about scoping?
A: These activities, provided no extraordinary circumstances are triggered, may be documented with a CE as described in 36 CFR 220.6(e)(8): “Short-term (1 year or less) mineral, energy, or geophysical investigations and their incidental support activities that may require cross-country travel by vehicles and equipment, construction of less than 1 mile of low standard road, or use and minor repair of existing roads.” This category goes further to say (ii): "Gathering geophysical data using shot hole, vibroseis, or surface charge methods.” This CE is not subject to Notice, Comment and Appeal regulations set forth by USFS and CEQ.  Whether a CE or an Environmental Analysis is used, there will be opportunities available for the public to provide input on the project. Both Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Statements are used when deemed necessary for the type of project proposed.

Q: How does the USFS work with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)?
A: The BLM has the final say to authorize (for Federally-owned oil and gas) all oil and gas leasing and production operations on NFS lands. The USFS conducts a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis pursuant to a decision for these activities, too. Once the analysis is done, the Forest Service makes a recommendation to the BLM’s authorized officer regarding the proposed activity. Where any authority for oil and gas-related activities is shared between the USFS and BLM, both agencies work cooperatively under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to ensure the appropriate level of care and resource protection is undertaken. Such authorizations are a high priority for the USFS’s to ensure the project is finished as quickly as possible. However, it is important to understand that in several key areas, the USFS and BLM have to follow different laws, regulations and policies that often result in the USFS process taking longer. The BLM, for example, under some circumstances can do an Environmental Analysis (EA) in as little as six weeks. The USFS usually requires about a year to conduct an EA.

Q: Who manages oil and gas leasing?
A: The BLM administers leasing of all Federally-owned fluid minerals (oil and gas) throughout the nation. Only surface activities related to exploring, developing and producing oil and gas, where those leases are located on NFS lands, are managed by the USFS.
However, if parcels of NFS lands are nominated for Federal oil and gas leasing, so long as the parcel nominated is available for such leasing, the USFS reviews the nomination and makes recommendations to the BLM regarding stipulations to protect surface resources as prescribed in the ARP’s Forest Plan.

Q: Could drilling rigs potentially be placed anywhere on the PNG?
A: No. In addition to the areas determined to not be available for oil and gas leasing, any most new Federal leases following the recently completed Leasing Analysis decision include the "No Surface Occupancy" stipulation. It is important to remember much of the Pawnee National Grassland is heavily intermixed with private lands and the Forest Service does not have authority to direct action on these private lands.

Q: What does the surface analysis include?
A: It includes the need for and location(s) of access along with potential effects (direct, indirect and cumulative) to surface resources such as cultural resources/archaeology, botany, terrestrial and aquatic wildlife, and paleontological (fossil) resources, as well as others. For some resources (cultural resources and wildlife are examples), the analysis of the potential effects to that resource will be considered and disclosed on lands that are not NFS lands.

Q: Must a company have an authorized oil and gas lease from the BLM?
A: In order to develop Federally-managed oil and gas (whether wholly- or jointly-owned), an authorized Federal oil and gas lease must be in place before drilling for that oil and gas may be considered. The USFS makes recommendations to the BLM for the leasing of Federally-managed oil and gas beneath lands located within the administrative boundary of the PNG. The BLM holds the ultimate decision authority for where, when, how and under what conditions Federally-owned oil and gas will be leased. An individual or company does not have to have a lease to explore for oil and gas (e.g., vibroseis geophysical exploration). Note that this is for Federally-managed oil and gas rights and not private rights.

Q: How long could a well be on the PNG for?
A: A given well may produce enough oil and gas to be economically viable for a decade or more.  Most of the oil and gas wells on PNG have been producing for over 15 years, some for more than 20 years.  Most, however, do not produce for more than 20 years.  

Q: What would a well development on the PNG typically look like (size, equipment)?
A:  Most wells consist of a pumping unit (pump jack) and two to four above ground storage tanks along with one or two heater-treaters, possibly a gas sales meter.  Wells, along with the access roads, typically occupy about 1.0 to 1.5 acres.  The current oil and gas development on the PNG occupies only about 150 acres of NFS lands.  This is about 0.07 percent of the PNG land base. (See photos of some facilities currently on the PNG.)

Q: What is the USFS’s position on hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a., “fracking”)?  Are there any special USFS requirements?
A: The USFS does not regulate this activity. There are State agencies that do this.  The USFS role is to analyze and disclose effects of the activity with respect to surface resources (wildlife, for example).  While we recognize the commonly used term “fracking,” it is more correctly called “hydraulic fracturing.”

Q: Are there or could there be any water pits used in association with hydraulic fracturing on the Pawnee National Grassland?
A: No.  Fresh water and all other fluids and materials used for hydraulic fracturing are contained in tanks.

Q: What is the breakdown of private/Federal leases on the Pawnee National Grassland?
A: Approximately 30% of National Forest System lands on the Pawnee are 100% privately-held mineral rights; 33% mixed private and Federal rights; and 37% Federal rights.

Q: How does industry decide where to drill?

A: A company who owns a lease may drill on any are for which they hold a lease to the subsurface resources, oil or gas. In the past three years the U.S. Forest Service has processed applications for 3-dimentional seismic testing on the Pawnee National Grassland, using a type of sonar to determine the size of an oil or gas reservoir, the depth and capacity of that reservoir, and it generally gives some insight to the efficiency of extracting that resource. Seismic testing reduces the incidence of “wildcat” drilling and therefore reduces the number of unsuccessful wells, which then need to be rehabilitated.

Q: What is an APD?

A: An APD is an Application for Permits to Drill. A company submits APD when they are ready to proceed with development and have secured the legal rights to the minerals. These provide the basis for site-specific analysis. APDs are also managed by the BLM since they involved the oil or gas resources but the activity proposed is analyzed for its effect to surface resources by the Forest Service.

Q: What are stipulations?

A: Stipulations are conditions attached to leases that must be adhered to on National Forest System Lands.