Our View: Environmental questions get some answers
It’s been a year since environmentalists first began protesting the possibility of a type of mining called fracking on public lands in our part of the state. That came about after it was learned that parcels of land in the Talladega National Forest were on the list of parcels to be offered in the federal Bureau of Land Management’s quarterly competitive sale of leases on federal land for persons or corporations interested in extracting minerals.

The policy of the BLM is to allow for public comments on proposed parcels during the first 30 days of the 90 days they are publicized, but the BLM’s publication is limited to PDF documents that can be found on the bureau’s website — if you know where to look.

In the Shoal Creek District of Talladega National Forest, concerns were raised about a piece of land being offered for lease that was uncomfortably close to a major watershed, a source of drinking water for the surrounding population. In the Talladega Ranger District, several parcels were near popular recreation areas. Concerns about pollution of underground water and other potential disruptions from drilling operations were raised, and protestors called public informational meetings in Talladega and Heflin to spread the word. No one from the federal government spoke at those meetings.

State Sen. Gerald Dial heard the concerns and sponsored a resolution opposing the leases, some 7,000 names were on a petition protesting the sale, and U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers asked the BLM to put a hold on the sale.

In an unprecedented move, the BLM removed the Talladega National Forest parcels from the sale, which went ahead without them on schedule. The BLM and the Forest Service also promised an informational public meeting where people could ask questions.

That meeting was held last week in Montgomery.

The time was originally scheduled for 3-6 p.m. on a weekday, a surefire way to guarantee a low turnout. The time was changed to 5-8 p.m., which was an improvement.

Inside, the meeting was set up like a trade show, with five information areas set up. Most had handouts, some had maps, and all had representatives from their respective agencies on hand to answer questions. Geologists, engineers and others from the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the State Oil & Gas Board of Alabama were there.

Information seekers proceeded from station to station to learn what they could and ask questions reflecting their concerns.

Some left dissatisfied, with a feeling that the people were being sold out to the interests of big business and big government.

We came away with mixed feelings. Since this became an issue a year ago, we were troubled by the process and by what seemed to be an opaque leasing system that left the public out of decisions affecting public lands.

We found comments from geologists at the meeting to be reassuring where fracking in Talladega National Forest is concerned. They explained that the thick rock layer in almost the entirety of the forest would make it extremely unlikely that anyone would ever want to do any drilling there. They don’t even know how thick the rock layer is there — one guess was around 10,000 feet. They expressed doubts that anyone would ever want to drill there to find out if oil or gas were underneath. They also pointed out that a fracking operation in St. Clair County, on a different type of geology, failed to produce enough gas to cover expenses.

Fracking remains a controversial mining technique, but one that seems unlikely to become an issue in the Talladega National Forest.

We also learned from Steve Lohr, forest supervisor of the National Forests in Alabama, that his agency has final approval over drilling on any National Forest land, even after a lease sale takes place, and after another public comment period occurs. He also pledged to give notice of future lease parcels on National Forest lands on his agencies website to improve transparency with the public.

We found the meeting to be informative and tentatively reassuring, and we appreciate the fact that the agencies involved responded to the public’s concerns.

But it shouldn’t have taken this long to do it.

© 2013