The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which manages federal land and its resources, recently announced its intention to sell oil and gas leases in June for parcels totaling more than 43,000 acres in Alabama’s national forests. Most of the parcels are in the Talladega National Forest in central and eastern Alabama, including Calhoun County. One parcel is in Conecuh National Forest in the southern part of the state.
Some areas proposed for leasing contain or are near environmental resources such as the Pinhoti National Recreation Trail, the Chinnabee Silent Trail, Talladega Scenic Drive, Cheaha Mountain and Rebecca Mountain. They also contain waterways including Choccolocco, Cheaha and Shoal creeks, along with other tributaries to the Coosa, Tallapoosa, and Cahaba rivers.
Attempts Monday to reach the Bureau of Land Management were unsuccessful, as were attempts to reach a spokesperson for the National Forests of Alabama under the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forestry Service.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, a regional nonprofit conservation organization that uses the law to support environmental issues in the Southeast, submitted a letter of protest Monday to the Bureau of Land Management, demanding Alabama’s national forests be taken off the list for use in oil and gas drilling. The letter argues the BLM is relying on outdated environmental analyses done by the U.S. Forest Service in 2004 as part of the revised management plan for Alabama's national forests. It states that among other deficiencies, the analyses fail to assess the environmental impacts of drilling using high-volume hydraulic fracturing, known as “fracking.”
Fracking is a form of gas drilling in which millions of gallons of water and chemicals are injected underground to fracture rock called shale and to release natural gas trapped by the rock. The technique has garnered controversy in recent years due to its supposed harmful effects on groundwater.
“This could be of a particular concern to Anniston, as some of the parcels are adjacent to its reservoir,” said Sarah Francisco, national forests and parks program leader for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
According to BLM’s sales notice, a parcel runs near the Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board’s Shoal Creek Watershed, a reservoir the city is not currently using but has slated for future use. Jim Miller, general manager for Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board, said he is not sure fracking would have much of an impact on the reservoir.
“Fracking generally isn’t an issue since it’s done deep in subterranean rock layers,” Miller said. “It might have more of an impact on aquifers like Coldwater Spring.”
Coldwater Spring is Anniston’s main source of drinking water.
Miller said it was possible gas and oil drilling in general could impact the city’s water.
“The devil is in the details of what they do out there,” Miller said. “You want to be careful about erosion and runoff. We’d have to take a hard look at it and protest it if we need to.”
The protest letter also argues the bureau’s decision to include national forest land for leasing is illegal and should not be permitted.
“We believe it is illegal because the bureau has not considered all environmental impacts required under the National Environmental Policy Act,” Francisco said.
Francisco said the bureau had not shown that enough would be done to protect endangered species in the national forests.
"The Bureau of Land Management is proposing a massive intrusion into Alabama's national forests without properly analyzing the potential impacts and without providing sufficient information to the public,” said Keith Johnston, managing attorney for the Birmingham office of the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Some of the areas they propose leasing for oil and gas development are near some of the most popular destinations in the forests.”
Francisco added that the Talladega National Forest would be hurt by more than just the act of drilling.
“It’s not just the wells, but the roads and other infrastructure that must be added,” Francisco said. “It’s major industrial activity that usually includes an open pit for wastewater and is often a 24/7 operation. This could destroy wildlife habitats.”
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star