Auction for gas leases in national forest set for next week
by Patrick McCreless
Jun 07, 2012 | 5311 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
An auction of gas drilling rights in the Talladega National Forest is set for next week, while conservationists and officials who have opposed the sale are still waiting for responses from the federal agency responsible.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which manages federal land and its resources, announced in April its intention to sell gas leases June 14 for parcels totaling more than 43,000 acres in Alabama’s national forests, mostly in the Talladega National Forest. Attempts to reach BLM officials for comment Wednesday were unsuccessful. However, the agency’s website listed no changes to the lease sale schedule.

Some conservation groups and area officials have opposed to the proposed leases on the grounds that drilling could potentially cause environmental damage to the Talladega National Forest. However as of Wednesday, none of them had received a response from BLM.

U.S. Mike Rogers sent a letter to BLM in May, requesting the agency halt the sale to give his constituents more time to discuss the issue.

“At this point in the process, he is awaiting a response,” Shea Snider, Rogers’ press secretary, wrote in a Wednesday email to The Star.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, a non-profit conservation organization that uses the law to support environmental issues in the Southeast, sent a letter to BLM March 31, stating its intent to file a lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act against the agency and the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service gave the BLM approval to lease the land for gas and oil drilling. The letter states that after 60 days, the law center will consider suing the BLM and the Forest Service if both agencies have not complied with Endangered Species Act. Keith Johnston, managing attorney for the Birmingham office of the law center, said the BLM and the Forest Service had not thoroughly studied the potential impact of drilling on several at-risk animal species and their habitats in the forest, in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as required by federal law.

“We’re giving them a chance to rectify that and then we’ll decide where we’ll go from there,” Johnston said.

Johnston noted his group had yet to receive a response regarding the intent to sue or in regards to a letter of protest the law center mailed to BLM in April.

The protest letter argued 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 stated that among other deficiencies, the analyses failed to assess the environmental impacts of accessing natural gas deposits using high-volume hydraulic fracturing, often referred to as fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing is a technique in which millions of gallons of water and chemicals are injected underground to fracture porous rock and release natural gas trapped within. The technique has garnered much controversy in recent years due to its supposed harmful effects on ground water.

Tammy Truett, public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service office in Montgomery, said in a Wednesday email to The Star that her agency had received the law center’s letter of intent to sue.

"We are aware of the concerns expressed in a letter from the Southern Environmental Law Center and will work collaboratively to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the National Forests in Alabama to meet the needs of present and future generations," Truett said.

Truett noted that the Forest Service would continue efforts to protect the environment even after the leases are sold.

“The Forest Service will seek public input during the stage of National Environmental Protection Act Analysis after a company submits an application for permit to drill to BLM,” Truett said.

Francine Huchinson, a member of Friends of the Talladega National Forest, which works to preserve and promote education about the forest, would rather the leasing just stop altogether. Huchinson said her organization mailed a petition Monday with more than 3,000 signatures to the Forest Service and BLM requesting the lease sale be stopped. Over the last month, the group has placed signs around the county protesting the potential use of fracking in the forest. It has also held three town hall meetings on the issue.

“If we have to deal with this situation in the future, we’ll do more,” Huchinson said.

Truett said withdrawing land from lease sales is not a common occurrence.

"Forest Service policy states that lands withdrawn from mineral leasing shall be requested only in circumstances where there are sensitive, unique surface resources that cannot be adequately protected under current public laws and Federal regulations,” Truett said. “The policy further states that few requests for withdrawals should be made as the land and surface resources ordinarily can be protected by proper stipulations."

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.

Editor's note:An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the month when U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers sent a letter to to the Bureau of Land Management about a planned auction of leases in the Talladega National Forest. Rogers sent the letter in May.
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