Forest Service Backs Down on Oil and Gas Leases in the Talladega National Forest

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A zoom out map of the proposed fracking zone in Alabama (see larger individual maps below).

By Glynn Wilson

The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have capitulated and withdrawn 43,000 acres in the Talladega National Forest from a proposed federal oil and gas lease sale, according to a written response just in to a letter asking that the acreage be withdrawn from the Alabama Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The written response came from a new acting state Forest Supervisor, William E. Taylor Jr., with no explanation for what happened to his predecessor, Steve Lohr, who I caught on video back in April admitting that he alone chose the area to be put out for lease.

So far I’ve received no response to my e-mail inquiry about what happened to Lohr from Nina Davison, who handles media and press for the Forest Service out of Montgomery, although it is likely more than a coincidence that he is no longer the state Forest Supervisor considering his handling of this controversy.

In the same story and video, at a “public meeting” called to try to dispel opposition to the proposal, an expert with the Oil and Gas Board of Alabama said the area proposed by Lohr was not suitable for oil and gas drilling, especially not hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

Dr. David E. Bolin, deputy director of the State Oil and Gas Board of Alabama, said virtually all of the area outlined in the maps in the Talladega National Forest are made up of Igneous rock and Metamorphic rock, formed under great pressure and high temperature.

“During the formation of that, because of the high temperature and pressure, it cooked off any hydrocarbons that might have been there at one time,” Dr. Bolin said. “So there’s no potential for oil and gas production.”

Scientists don’t know definitively how thick it is there, but Dr. Bolin said, “We believe it to be more than 10,000 feet thick.”

So if anybody tried to drill there, he said, “they would have to drill through at least that much extremely dense, hard rock that would tear up drill bits, to get to something. They don’t even know what’s down there. So from a geology standpoint, the potential would be extremely low.”

Residents in the northeastern part of the state, worried about drilling in the area, the potential for fracking and the general ruin of the national forest, mounted a protest of the proposal, which resulted in the filing of an intent to sue by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of WildSouth and the National Resources Defense Council.

But it was the Alabama Chapter of the Sierra Club that acted on my reporting and requested that the area be withdrawn since it was not based on science. The letter was copied to the White House, where the Obama administration has been promoting oil and gas development, but also basing decisions on science, unlike Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

“We are pleased that these areas in our National Forests are no longer being considered for oil and gas drilling and fracking,” Robert W. Hastings, Alabama Sierra Club Conservation Chair, said in reaction to the news. “Fracking has been demonstrated to jeopardize both surface and ground water sources, and should be banned on all public lands. Our National Forests should be protected for all to enjoy natural areas, and not to satisfy corporate interests.”

Francine Hutchinson, the biologist interviewed for this story, indicated she and her husband Bruce are “indescribably ecstatic to hear this good news.”

“We appreciate everyone’s participation and letter writing in this effort,” she said. “Thank you Glynn for your coverage of this story. Thanks to WildSouth and SELC, the Anniston Star, and all the Alabama environmental groups for your efforts. Especially appreciate the Sierra Clubs work on securing that response from USFS. We will always sleep with one eye open and be ready to work with all the Alabama folks who truly love our sweet home.”

WildSouth Development Director Ben Colvin indicated that energy exploration, and hydraulic fracking in particular, have “no place on our public lands.”

“The Alabama public has been clear that we value our National Forests as treasures, and fracking is not management in the public’s best interest,” he said.

It comes as “good news, but totally expected,” environmental attorney Ray Vaughn of Wildlaw said, reacting to the news on Facebook. “They always back down in these situations. Their legal defense is complete BS and easily destroyed in court and they know it.”

Vaughn said the lease sale may not be gone for good, since the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management can re-propose to lease these same acres or any others at any time in the future.

“Until the forest management plan is amended to withdraw these lands from the leasable base,” he said, “the potential to lease them is always there.”

While the letter to the Sierra Club (below) may seem wishy-washy and inconclusive, it makes clear that this particular proposal is dead in the water. The public relations meeting in Montgomery did not have the desired effect to placate the opposition to drilling in the area.

Forest Service response to Sierra Club letter: OilGasResponse1

Along with a related document: JuneErrataSheet3a.pdf

More reaction will be added as it comes in. You are more than welcome to react in the comment section below.

© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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