Talladega National Forest
In 2004, the U.S. Forest Service published a Revised Land and Resource Management Plan (RLRMP) for National Forests in Alabama. That plan makes available for mineral leasing (including oil and gas) 543,047 acres, or 81.4% of Alabama’s national forests. Combined with the 12% of national forest land on which the mineral rights are privately held, this totals 93.4% of our National Forests in Alabama subject to oil and gas exploration and development.
In the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), which accompanied the 2004 RLRMP, the cumulative impacts of mineral development in the National Forests in Alabama were predicted to be negligible, due mainly to a historically low level of interest by the oil and gas industries in developing these resources.
Subsequent to the release of the FEIS and RLRMP, however, new developments in drilling technology, specifically horizontal drilling and modern, high-volume hydraulic fracturing, have made the extraction of natural gas from Alabama’s deep shale formations potentially more feasible and economical. This presumably has led to the much higher level of industry interest in oil and gas leasing in Alabama’s National Forests in recent years.
Alabama’s approximately 667,000 acres of national forest land occupy only about 2% of the state’s total land area, yet they are a haven for over 60% of the federally listed threatened and endangered fish and other freshwater species in the state.
The watersheds in the National Forests in Alabama include significant surface water sources feeding several of Alabama’s major river systems, including the Black Warrior, Cahaba, Coosa and Tallapoosa, which provide drinking water to millions of people, habitat for numerous threatened, endangered and sensitive aquatic species, and recreational opportunities for all of Alabama’s residents. The recreational value of these undeveloped national forest lands cannot be overstated. They are used extensively by hunters, hikers, fishermen, trail riders, cyclists, birdwatchers and more, providing significant economic impact to communities surrounding the forests. Our forests are a classroom for teaching our children about the natural world.
Since 2007, the federal Bureau of Land Management has held 11 lease sales on Alabama National Forests, resulting in the sale of over 148,000 acres of leases for oil and gas development in the National Forests of Alabama. Although the BLM and Forest Service have said that some of those leases are no longer active, this leasing history shows the extent of the potential risk to Alabama’s National Forests. In addition, in spring 2012 the BLM proposed to lease another approximately 43,000 acres in the Talladega National Forest, but the sale of these leases was put on hold after the public became aware of the sale and mounted a vigorous protest. Environmental groups, including local organizations, also filed a formal letter to BLM to protest the leases.
The wide scale gas drilling invited by the leasing of tens of thousands of acres of Talladega National Forest land for oil and gas development likely would negatively impact most of the other forest resources on these lands, such as important fish and wildlife habitat, recreation and scenic areas, high-quality rivers and streams, and municipal water supplies. Therefore, such development would not be compatible with the Forest Service’s objectives for the protection of those resources and for the ecological restoration of native forest communities. Gas drilling almost certainly would employ modern hydraulic fracturing, a technology which has been shown to have great risk of potential negative impacts to both surface and groundwater resources in other states where it has been widely used, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, Wyoming and Texas.
Modern fracking technology consumes significant water resources and creates serious disposal problems for wastes, which can contain carcinogens, toxins, endocrine disruptors, volatile organic compounds, radioactive isotopes, and other substances harmful to the natural environment and human health. Surface impacts include the construction of drilling pads and roads to access and maintain drilling sites (which often run 24-7) and the construction of pipelines and compressor stations, which will require an electrical grid. In addition, there are significant risks of accidents and spills from the transportation of toxic fracking chemicals and wastes through our watersheds and communities.
Oil and gas drilling generally, and fracking in particular, have been exempted from certain provisions of seven different federal laws designed to protect the environment and public health, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund Program), the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. State regulations have not kept pace with the technology and are insufficient to protect our water resources and the public health from potential damaging impacts of modern hydraulic fracturing.
The National Forests in Alabama are far more essential for the clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreation opportunities they provide than for their potential for gas development, which has the potential to negatively impact all those other uses beyond our capacity to mitigate them, especially in the case of groundwater contamination. Therefore, the Talladega lease sale should not be re-offered, and at a minimum no further oil and gas leasing on the National Forests in Alabama should occur until the environmental impacts of drilling on Alabama’s National Forests, including impacts on threatened and endangered species, have been thoroughly studied based on current information about the impacts of fracking, with full public participation.
The proposals to allow oil and gas leasing and drilling in Alabama are not unique. All across the country, oil and gas companies are increasingly showing interest in drilling in our National Forests. In the eastern US, leasing for oil and gas development has gone forward in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, and Virginia, and has been proposed in West Virginia.
Oil and gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing pose a significant risk to our National Forests across the country.