Dozens show for 'open house' on drilling in national forests
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Apr 25, 2013 | 5549 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Several layers of growth can be seen in this view of Talladega National Forest (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
Several layers of growth can be seen in this view of Talladega National Forest (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
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MONTGOMERY — At 5 p.m. Thursday, the streets of Montgomery were jammed with cars as state workers hit the road for home. But Diana Mann was just arriving, after driving nearly two hours to tell federal officials how she felt about oil and gas leases in Talladega National Forest.

"Nobody wants it," said Mann, who lives in Chandler Springs in rural Talladega County. "It will pollute our water, our air and the forest that we love."

Mann was among a crowd of about 50 people who showed up in Montgomery Thursday afternoon for an "open house" held by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

Federal officials said the purpose of the meeting was to inform the public about how the government goes about leasing federal land to oil and gas drilling companies. They were quick to note that the meeting wasn't about any particular park or lease.

"We held it here because it's a location that's central to the state," said Karen McKenzie, a ranger for the Shoal Creek District of the Talladega National Forest. "Talladega isn't the only national forest in the state."

But many in the crowd were people who lived in or near the Talladega National Forest. And they had one thing on their mind — fracking.

The Bureau of Land Management stirred up a firestorm of controversy last year when they announced plans to lease some land in the national forest for oil and gas drilling. Most local residents didn't know about the leases until an environmental group, the Southern Environmental Law Center, called attention to them. The group said the bureau hadn't considered the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a form of gas drilling that has grown more prominent in recent years.

Critics say fracking, in which millions of gallons of water and chemicals are pumped into the ground to fracture rock and release gas, is harmful to groundwater supplies.

Local opposition to the gas leases soon led to a letter to the bureau by U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, and an anti-fracking resolution in the Alabama Senate. The bureau soon dropped the leasing plans "to allow for more engagement, including public informational meetings."

At Thursday's open house, staffers from the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management stood at tables and took questions from members of the crowd, open-house style. The meeting appeared to be part of the bureau's plan to take public input before re-opening the leases.

"This is the informational meeting," McKenzie said. A bureau spokeswoman later said the bureau would soon open up an online site for comments on drilling.

Federal officials said that no leasing was likely to be done soon, and that the chances of fracking in the forest were slim.

"Much of the land that's under the Talladega is not conducive to fracturing," said Shayne Banks, a bureau spokeswoman. "It's a possibility, but it's a slim possibility."

Kemba Anderson, supervisory land law examiner for the bureau, said that if the Forest Service gave the permission to go ahead with the leases tomorrow, an auction wouldn't be held until at least December.

Anderson said the Forest Service and the bureau were offering the leases because they were required to by law.

And just how much oil and gas is under the forest?

"Based on the research, there is potential for development," Anderson said. "But it seems not to be economical at this time."

Anderson said oil and gas companies seemed more interested in the Talladega leases after the fracking debate hit the news. Investors saw the coverage, she said, and concluded there must be gas and oil in the forest.

While fracking was the biggest concern of drilling opponents at the meeting, it wasn't the only worry. Residents of communities near the forest spoke of increased traffic on narrow country roads and the potential for a drilling-related accident in rural communities with few firefighters and police.

"We don't want those drillers up there," said Fruithurst resident Sharon Jackson. "We don't want the 18 wheelers. We don't want you to mess the place up."

Environmental activists criticized both federal agencies for holding the meeting in Montgomery, far from the forest itself, at 5 p.m. on a weekday. Critics said the meeting wasn't the public hearing they'd been hoping for.

"I guess it's a public meeting," said Frank Chitwood, director of Coosa Riverkeeper. "But it's just an open house. It's them telling us."

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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