Rogers asks BLM to delay lease auction of forest land
by Laura Johnson
lbjohnson@annistonstar.com
May 24, 2012 | 4949 views |  0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, Thursday asked the federal Bureau of Land Management to halt plans to lease 43,000 acres of national forest land in Alabama for potential oil and natural gas drilling.

Rogers said Thursday following a Calhoun County Commission meeting that he is opposed to the bureau’s plans to lease the land on its current schedule. Most of the land is in the Talladega National Forest, much of it in three areas in Calhoun, Clay, Cleburne, and Talladega counties. In a letter dated Thursday, Rogers asked the bureau to freeze the process to give residents in his district more time to discuss the proposals.

Efforts Thursday to reach the Bureau of Land Management for comment were unsuccessful.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, also has asked the bureau to withdraw the leases and do an environmental analysis in keeping with the National Environmental Policy Act. According to representatives with the council, its protests, Rogers’ letter and public dissatisfaction over the bureau’s plans could lead decision makers to postpone plans to lease the land.

“The BLM is saying that the analysis that was done when the forest plan was first created is sufficient. We simply don’t agree,” said Matthew McFeeley, a legal fellow with the council.

McFeeley and Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the council, said BLM is acting outside the law. They added that the public would have more time to ask questions and provide input if their organization’s request is honored.

“The public hasn’t had the information it needs to provide real input,” Mall said.

Some conservationists have said drilling for fossil fuels in the forest could damage the environment. Many have been especially concerned about the potential for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in which water and chemicals are pumped underground to break rocks and help release gas deposits.

Rogers told the commission Thursday that the bureau “dropped the ball” when it failed to notify public officials of the proposed land leases.

The congressman said he had no word on whether the bureau plans to honor his request. The bureau plans to auction the land for lease or sale on June 14.

Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks, said he was opposed to oil and gas drilling in the forest and was caught off-guard recently when he learned that the process was moving forward so swiftly.

“I’m all for drilling,” Wood said. “But there are plenty of places for drilling without drilling in the forest.”

Calhoun County Commissioner Tim Hodges also opposes drilling in the forest and agreed with Wood that the process had come on too swiftly. Rogers, Wood and Hodges all said they were unhappy with the bureau’s notification process concerning the leasing the land for drilling.

“We’re all together,” Hodges said. “We’re against it.”

According to the representatives with the council, this issue is not unique to Alabama. McFeeley said that since 2001 more than 384,000 acres of public land have been leased for oil and gas drilling in the eastern United States.

“We’re seeing a lot of these things around the country,” Mall said. “We’re seeing a lot of very upset communities when these things happen without them really realizing they’re occurring.”

Star staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.
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