The meeting focused on the practice of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting natural gas from deep shale deposits under the forest.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which controls mineral rights underneath national forests, is set to auction off some 43,000 acres to oil and gas companies June 14. According to Francine Hutchinson of Friends of the Talladega National Forest, who hosted the public meeting Monday evening, most people only became aware of the impending auction the day before the public comment period closed. Petitions are being circulated in the hopes that enough political pressure could be brought to bear to stop the auctions anyway. The Alabama House and Senate have already approved a joint resolution opposing the leases in the wake of a similar public meeting held last week in Heflin.
The resolution was sponsored by state Sen. Gerald Dial.
One member of the audience reported she had written to U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions expressing her opposition. She said she had received form letters stating the senators favored the leases.
“Fracking,” as hydraulic fracturing is typically abbreviated, “is an extremely destructive way to extract a small amount of natural gas,” Hutchinson said. “Only about 20 percent of the wells will be productive. We have already built up a huge inventory of natural gas in this country, and it does not in any way effect the price of gasoline. It has divided communities and contaminated water supplies.”
Hutchinson then played two videos. The first was a British documentary detailing the fracking program in Pennsylvania. In addition to the toxic chemicals found in fracking fluid, the process also releases radium and radon from the shale deposits. The former is radioactive and the latter is a carcinogen.
The first video explained the process involves drilling about 2,000 feet below the surface, then drilling horizontally into the deep shale deposit. A pipe is inserted, then holes are blown in the pipe. Water containing sand and a mixture of other chemicals is then forced through the pipe at high pressure, releasing the natural gas from the shale, if there is any. Although the chemicals are only a small percentage of the overall fluid shot through the pipe, they still account for about 5,000 gallons of potentially dangerous material per well. The number of wells planned for Pennsylvania is well into the thousands, according to the video.
Once the fracking is done, the chemicals and fracking water will eventually resurface. Residents in the video reported having tap water with a greasy sheen on it that smelled like diesel fuel, and documented small spills with devastating effects on farm animals and wildlife. This same resident reported his well water contained unacceptable amounts of lead now, and he had been advised not to drink it or bathe in it.
Residents also complained of constant heavy truck traffic that damaged roads and caused tremendous amounts of noise. Some 95 percent of the wells in Pennsylvania are not being monitored.
A law passed in 2005 exempts gas companies from disclosing the chemicals used in fracking under the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts, and there is no requirement for waste to be tested for dangerous substances.
The second video was much shorter, and involved a speech by a farmer. The mineral rights beneath his property had been sold in 1921, and he was hounded about the drilling for six months starting in 2007. The drilling company cut his fence, releasing many of his cows, and began cutting roads on his property without any prior notice. Once the drilling was done, his pond was ruined and most of his calves either died or had birth defects of some sort.
In addition to emailing Sessions, Shelby and U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, Hutchinson encouraged those attending to write to the Regional Forest Service Office in Atlanta and the BLM in Virginia. “We need an avalanche of feelings,” she said. “They may think we’re so ignorant we’ll just roll over and let them take our public lands. But a similar effort has been stopped in Ohio, and we can stop it here, too. We just have to make our opposition visible.”
Keith Johnston of the Southern Environmental Defense Council said his organization had filed protest letters with the BLM and the Forest Service based on procedural and substantive issues. An environmental impact study of drilling in the national forest was last done in 2004, before fracking became a common practice, and that a supplement was needed. Threats to various endangered species had not been addressed, and maps of the effected area were not available.
Johnston said similar efforts had been defeated on at least two other occasions, most recently in 2009, when protest letters and notice of intent to sue were sent out. The BLM eventually dropped the proposed sale.
Various states, including New York, have placed moratoriums on fracking, and Vermont has recently banned the practice, but the rules vary by state, he said. Impact on private property values would vary according to proximity to the drilling sites and the source of local drinking water.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering new rules and regulations to cover this practice, which is another reason cited in the council’s protest letter to delay the sale.
The joint resolution has no legal force, but will bring some political pressure, he added.
Of the money raised from fracking, he added, about one half of one percent goes to the property owner, 12 percent goes to the leasers (the federal government) and the remaining income goes to the drillers. Individuals are not allowed to purchase oil and gas leases.
Janice Barnett of Wild South was the next speaker. The non-profit organization has been protecting forest land since 1991.
“A national forest is set aside for all people to use,” she said. “They want to cut down our trees, pollute our air and water and threaten our personal health. What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. It’s theft for a corporation to be sold our land to drill on our national forest, and federal agencies allowing that theft to happen is also a crime. Fracking is a crime against nature and humanity. If we make a loud enough racket, we can stop the leases, but we need everyone who depends on air and water.”
She said she was optimistic that the leases could be stopped, but encouraged people to petition their local governments as well as state and federal officials to bring additional pressure.
Several audience members then addressed the group, all expressing opposition.
Field geologist John Stephens of Talladega, was one of the more compelling voices against the proposal.
“Fracking is a frightful thing for our communities,” he said. “Holes in Cheaha may come out in Sylacauga, or in Montgomery. Four to six million gallons of water, sand and chemicals will be used in each well, and those chemicals are going to eventually surface somewhere. I saw on television not long ago someplace out west where people could light their tap water on fire. I’m sorry to say, it’s just not a good process. I was an undergraduate in the 1960s and 1970s, and we were talking about this then. It’s been around a long time (and) it’s a bad situation, a bad principle. We need other ways. This is not the answer, and we’ve got to complain loudly. This is not the answer.”
Jay Worrell of Anniston pointed out that the jobs issue was somewhat overstated. The most labor intensive part of the process is actually drilling the wells, which is done by teams that travel all over the country. Hundreds of heavy trucks damage public roads and local government is left to repair them. “We have a resource here that brings people in from other states and other countries. We are inviting these companies to liquefy that resource and go away, leaving us to clean it up. The drilling companies are not Alabama companies, and may not even be American companies. After all, who is going to want to hike up to Bald Rock to look down at a bunch of gas wells.”
Although Ron Struzik of Talladega also said he opposed fracking, he was critical of Wild South as part of “Agenda 21.”
“They want to stop all fossil fuels,” Struzik said. “We’ve already lost trillions on solar power companies going bankrupt, and while wind power works well in the Midwest, we’re not the Midwest. And I have five children and cannot fit in a Prius.”
Hutchinson said the focus of Monday’s meeting was fracking in the forest and pointed out the scientific consensus on manmade climate change. “If we subsidized other forms of energy the way we do oil and gas, we wouldn’t need to be here tonight,” she said.
Letters to officials in Washington should be emailed to ensure they are read in a timely fashion. Copies of the petition can be obtained through Lynn Dunn or Jim Stovall at Wild South, and the Wild South, Don’t Frack the Forest and Friends of the Talladega National Forest all have Facebook pages.
Contact Chris Norwood at firstname.lastname@example.org.