Hope remains there will be no drilling for gas or oil
by SHANE DUNAWAY
Steve Lohr, forest supervisor for all the national forests in Alabama, talks to Talladega resident Deborah Stovall and Waldo resident Lynn Dunn during the open house meeting Thursday at Gateway Park Lodge in Montgomery. Representatives from the National Forests of Alabama and the Southeastern States Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management led the discussion at the event.
MONTGOMERY — The National Forests in Alabama and the Southeastern States Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management held an open house meeting for the public Thursday at the Gateway Park Lodge in Montgomery.

The event served as an opportunity for the bureau and forest service representatives to educate the public on the development and processing of oil and natural gas within national forests.

Officials said the site for the meeting was chosen as a central location since the process for all the national forests in Alabama was discussed.

Representatives from each organization manned five information booths and distributed handouts detailing their extensive processes to concerned citizens. The booths provided information on laws, regulations and forest land management plans; oil and mineral leasing processes on public lands; existing and potential leases on the National Forests of Alabama; applications to drill; and extraction, recovery and reclamation processes.

The forest plan determines the areas of land available for oil and gas leasing, and provides the information to the bureau. Lands are nominated based on expressions of interest from the public, via presale non-competitive offers or through a bureau motion.

The bureau assigns a tracking number to the parcels of land nominated for leasing and ensures an analysis for compliance to the National Environmental Policy Act is conducted before the lease sales occur. According to Gary Taylor, the bureau’s planner and environmental coordinator, the bureau holds four quarterly lease sales in the national forests a year.

By law, the bureau maintains an obligation to notify the public 90 days prior to each quarterly lease sale and the public may protest within the first 30 days after the initial notification.

Taylor said the bulk of the companies that acquire the 10-year land leases in the national forests don’t always drill on the property and whenever they do drill, it’s only on a small portion of the leased property.

In April 2012, legal representatives from the Southeastern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of clients Wild South and the Natural Resource Defense Council, protested an attempt by the bureau and forest service to offer more than 43,000 acres of land in the Talladega National Forest for oil and gas leasing June 14, 2012. A follow-up letter addressing the SELC’s intent to sue sent May 31, 2012, resulted in the bureau withdrawing the offered acres from the lease sale.

Currently, there are no active oil and gas leases in the Shoal Creek Ranger District or Talladega Ranger District of the Talladega National Forest, but according to Kemba Anderson, the bureau’s supervisory land law examiner, that could change.

“In the immediate future, we may offer land leases pending the consent to lease from the forest service,” Anderson said. “Until we get an updated consent from the forest service, we cannot offer lands from Talladega for lease.”

Ann Arnold, a geologist with the State of Alabama Oil and Gas Board, briefed citizens on the locations of various wells throughout all of Alabama’s national forests.

During her presentation, she speculated the likelihood of finding oil and natural gas in the Talladega National Forest was remote, at best, and any endeavors for leasing would not be economically conducive to companies looking to make an investment.

David Bolin, deputy director of the Oil and Gas Board, said most of the Talladega National Forest would not be attractive for gas and oil exploration.

“We’re not even sure how thick that rock layer is — perhaps 10,000 feet,” Bolin said. “I don’t know of anyone who would be interested in drilling through that to find out if there’s anything there to extract.”

Charles Boyd, the bureau’s petroleum engineer, said the cost to drill a well ranges anywhere from $100,000 to $12 million, depending on the size of the well and method used to drill it.

He addressed citizens’ concerns about the controversial well stimulation process known as “fracking,” stating there’s no guarantee fracking would be the method employed to extract resources and the procedure could be as simple as perforating the well and flushing it with 500,000 gallons of acetic acid.

At the end of the day, the forest service holds the final say over whether drilling will or will not take place in the forest, even if all the requirements have been met, said Steve Lohr, forest supervisor for all of the national forests in the state of Alabama.

Despite the bulk of information provided by the bureau and forest service, Frank Chitwood, Coosa Riverkeeper and concerned citizen, deemed the open house a “waste of taxpayer dollars.”

“They didn’t answer my questions very well, but I asked hard questions,” Chitwood said. “Obviously this meeting was not designed to handle a large number of public participants. Take a look around the room. Don’t you think there’s more people from the forest service and BLM here than actual citizens? You think that was a mistake?”

The meeting’s location may have been centralized for the agencies holding the open house, but Chitwood called the meeting location an attempt to deter citizens from speaking out against the organizations.

“We would’ve had a greater turnout if they had this event in Talladega or Anniston — there’s no doubt about that,” Chitwood said. “We would have a greater turnout in Birmingham.”

Chitwood, donning a black T-shirt with white lettering reading ‘What the frak?’ recounted his arrival to the open house when he was met by a public relations representative for the event. His account seemed to imply the house was less open than advertised.

“Their P.R. person saw my sign here, which says ‘Save our forests, no fracking,’” Chitwood said. “She said, ‘Oh, I see you brought some signs. Would you like to put those up somewhere?’ I said, ‘I didn’t know there was going to be a table for the public to put out stuff.’ She said, ‘Yeah, come out here.’ She took me outside — outside — the building. I told her, ‘No, I’m going back inside with my sign.’”

Nelson Brooke, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, seemed equally dismayed by the proceedings, expressing his opposition to potential drilling “wholeheartedly.”

“Clearly the Talladega National Forest is enjoyed by people from all over Alabama and around the country who want to enjoy the woods in its natural form, getting fresh air, hiking and hearing the sounds of the forests,” Brooke said. “With surface impacts of drilling operations, that’s completely shattered. It should be a no-go based on surface impacts alone.”

As far as the potential for fracking, Brooke said he hopes it never gets to that point.

“The threat of contamination to ground water and surface water is too great to even consider this proposal,” Brooke said. “Looking at any of our national forests in Alabama, I certainly don’t think they should be sold off to bidders to perform a practice that is going to harm the resources for future generations’ use and enjoyment. Let’s get on with enjoyment and throw exploitation out the window.”

Contact Shane Dunaway at sdunaway@dailyhome.com.

© 2013