TALLADEGA, Ala. (WIAT) - Is it an untapped resource or an environmental disaster waiting to happen? There are a lot of concerns and questions from the public about the possibility of drilling in the Talladega National Forest.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management delayed leasing 43,000 acres of the Talladega National Forest for oil and gas exploration last year. At the same time, the federal government announced there would be public meetings about the process.
Thursday in Montgomery about 55 people gathered for what turned out to be a public information session, but not a public hearing.
Representatives from the U.S. Forest Service and the leasing agency for the federal government, the Bureau of Land Management, were on hand to answer questions.
The Talladega National Forest leases that were offered last year are still on hold, but not out of the question.
"Currently there's not a timetable that is on hold right now. Which once the surface management agency, in this case the forest service, reviews that and if they decide to give consent they will send it to the Bureau of Land Management," said Kemba Anderson, Bureau of Land Management.
"The return of the investment is that for every dollar we take in four dollars are actually given to the treasury. Twelve and a half percent of royalties are actually given back to the treasury on development of public lands. We've actually in the East have given average of 100 million dollars to 150 million dollars last year on development on public lands and in 31 states."
News of the offers sparked widespread outrage in 2012 among opponents ranging from mayors to outdoor enthusiasts.
"There's been quite a few mayors and official public officials over in the area who've been very concerned. There's been the state senator who passed a resolution against oil and gas drilling on the National Forest. So there's been a lot of political opposition to this sort of oil and gas lease development on public lands," said Keith Johnston, Managing Attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center, Birmingham office."A resolution is just a statement it doesn't have any authority of law, but and it just passed the Senate it didn't pass the house, but we certainly think it shows where people's sentiment is on this."
The BLM says offers were pulled in 2009 when people protested the leases, but 2007 leases are still active- on "rental status."
Right now offers are being considered by some energy companies that may want a piece of the Talladega National Forest or at least the oil or gas that may be underneath it, according to the BLM
In this case that agency says the names of the companies or individuals who want access to the forest for drilling and the type of drilling they might want to do will be kept anonymous until after the lease is accepted.
According to Anderson, fracking is already happening on public lands in Alabama.
"There is development in the Conecuh National Forest as we speak," said Anderson.
It's not the first time that leases on parts of the Talladega National Forest have been offered.
"We have leased the Talladega from time to time. This last lease sale was 2012. The one before that was 2009; those last two sales were protest so we never did offer those parcels. Before that was in 2007 where we did offer several parcels where those are currently under lease, but those are only on rental status," said Anderson.
Dave Bolin, Deputy Director of the State Oil and Gas Board, does not think fracking is likely to happen in the Talladega National Forest.
"...relative to the wells that have already been drilled in the state. And we find that there has been limited exploration in the southern and western portions of the state that may be close to the national forest, but in the East side of the state particularly in the Talladega area, there have been no wells that have been drilled. With that combined with the geology in that particular area we think that the potential would be low at best for a well to be permitted and drilled and for it to be productive in that particular area of the state," said Dave Bolin.
Fracking involves pumping water mixed with chemicals at extremely high pressures through a specialized drill bit deep underground.
According to Bolin, the federal government does not require companies to disclose what chemicals are used in the mixture, but the state does.
"The hydraulic fracking that has occurred in Alabama has been primarily in coal bed methane with a few shale wells, but we have some of the most stringent rules in regard to fracking in the disclosure of the chemicals in as much as in since 1999 we have required the service companies to provide us with the constituents," said Bolin.
The BLM says there could be a decision within a year.
"When the BLM advertises those leases there is an objection period where if the public objects to the, or it's called a protest period- if the public doesn't think that those are lands that should be leased they can do a protest through the BLM on those acres," said Steve Lohr, U.S. Forest Service.
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