MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WIAT) - People concerned about drilling in the Talladega National Forest got a long awaited update, but few definite answers on Thursday. When news got out last year that oil and gas exploration rights for about 43,000 acres of that forest were going to be auctioned a lot of people started raising concerns about the potential environmental impact. The focal point of fear is a process called fracking, that many opponents believe would lead to widespread pollution.
Thursday people got the first update from the U.S. Forest Service since it put the auction plans on hold.
The idea of putting a natural gas or oil rig in the middle of a national forest may sound shocking to a lot of people, but according to the U.S. Forest service, it's not new.
"We've been leasing national forest land for oil and gas purposes since the 60"s in Alabama and every forest with the ex,ception of the Tuskegee has had leases. Now oftentimes these leases are sold and not acted upon," said Steve Lohr, U.S. Forest Service.
According to Lohr the ten year leases sometimes expire before the companies even do any speculation for extraction, but not always.
There have been active drilling and mining operations on Alabama's National Forest Land. The leases do not specify what process of mineral extraction can be done. It could be targeting coal methane beds and it could involve hydraulic fracturing more commonly known as "fracking" or it might not. That's a controversial way of breaking through rock to allow pockets of trapped natural gas to escape while pumping millions of gallons of chemical laced water into the ground at high pressures.
The federal government doesn't require companies to disclose what chemicals are used in the process. They are protected as trade secrets. However, the State of Alabama has its own set of rules when it comes to fracking, according to David Bolin, Deputy Director of the State Oil & Gas Board. Bolin says companies must disclose what chemicals they use if they plan to do any fracking in Alabama. Bolin says fracking has been going on for decades in the state, primarily between Jefferson and Tuscaloosa Counties.
So why is it done? Money. A a percentage of the royalties go to the United States Treasury, according to Kemba Anderson with the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM is the agency that manages land deals for the federal government.
"For every dollar that we take in 4 dollars is actually given to the treasury," said Anderson.
About 55 people came to the information session on Thursday, including Mark Kolinski of the Wild South organization.
"Our national forests are so much more valuable as functioning ecosystems, as recreation use, recreation based tourism," said Kalinski. "Oil and gas extraction has the potential to create negative impacts on our national forests, our public lands that are beyond the Forest Service's capacity to mitigate."
Although none of the 43,00 acres in the Talladega National Forest which are being considered for gas and oil exploration have been leased yet, Anderson says that process could begin within a year.
.Any interested companies will remain anonymous until the highest bid has been accepted according to Anderson. That means there's no guarantee fracking won't be involved.
We won't know until the actual candidate would put in their application," said Anderson.
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