The suit is being brought on behalf of Wildsouth and the National Resource Defense Council, as well as SELC.
The suit was prompted by the announcement that the BLM was planning to sell 36 parcels of national forest land totaling 43,038.3 acres, mostly in the Talladega National Forest. The sale is set for June 14.
The suit claims that the BLM and Forest Service “both failed to complete consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the lease sale in light of information concerning newly listed species, newly designated critical habitat, recently discovered presence of new species and new impacts of drilling on these species and habitats.”
The report the BLM is relying on in this case was compiled in 2003 and was meant to outline usage for the next 10 to 15 years.
Quite a bit has changed since then, according to the suit, including the widespread use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of shale deposits to recover natural gas. Fracking was not a common practice in the United States until after 2005, and the 2003 report does not take into account the increase in necessary space or the added impact on both land habitats and on water supply. A single “fracking” can use 4 million to 5 million gallons of water and can have a negative impact on drinking water supplies as well as wildlife, the suit states.
The introduction of fracking has also caused considerably more interest in drilling in the national forest, which also leads to potentially greater impact on species and habitat in the area. Also, new listed species and habitats have been added since the last report and listed species have been found in areas where they were not known to exist in 2003, according to the suit.
A dozen new mussel species found in the Talladega National Forest have been added to the list since 2003, and the Indiana bat, which was previously not believed to exist this far south, was discovered in the Talladega National Forest earlier this year.
The BLM announced the proposed sale in a PDF document on its own website, but the proposal did not become common knowledge until after the official public comment period was over. There was one protest letter sent, which was still being evaluated Wednesday. The Eastern BLM office in Virginia, where the sale will be conducted, did not return calls for comment.
At least three public meetings were held in areas that would be affected by the sale, and more than 7,000 residents signed petitions opposing the sale to oil and gas interests. A joint resolution from the Alabama Legislature also opposed the sale.
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, whose district includes four counties with Talladega National Forest land in them, sent a letter to the BLM director and the Department of the Interior asking that the comment period be reopened and that at least one public hearing be held before the leases are sold.
“Given the fact that so many state and local elected officials, community organizations and private citizens did not have the opportunity to formally comment on the potential lease sales, I respectfully request that you immediately reopen the protest filing period and allow adequate time for BLM to evaluate any new filings,” Rogers wrote. “Additionally, I request that you schedule a public meeting in the local area for BLM officials to discuss the different types of energy extraction that could result from a lease sale in the Talladega National Forest.” The letter was dated May 24.
According to Rogers’ spokeswoman Shay Snyder, there had been no response as of Tuesday afternoon.
In a letter to a concerned citizen, U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest supervisor Steven M. Lohr wrote, “National Forests are managed for a broad range of multiple uses to effectively meet the nation’s needs. Oil and gas exploration is important to economic and social development, as these products are essential for modern living. Under the federal government’s Mining and Minerals Policy Act of 1970, the Forest Service is directed to provide commodities for current and future generations. Although BLM holds the responsibility for administering subsurface mineral leases on federal land, we remain engaged to accomplish this while continuing to sustain the long-term health and bio-diversity of ecosystems. Ordinarily, land and surface resources can be protected by proper stipulations; therefore, the forest service policy states that there should be few requests for withdrawals.”
The same letter goes on to say, “The National Forests in Alabama (have) offered mineral leases for sale on almost every forest within Alabama since 1969. Many of these leases have been offered in the past with no bidders. Statewide, we currently have 77,305 acres under oil and gas lease and three active wells on National Forest Land. The Forest Service has a long history of working closely with the BLM on all oil and gas leasing decisions, as well as positive and productive community dialog. We are committed to maintaining these successful partnerships.”
According to the Alabama Oil and Gas Board, the state is currently ranked 10th in the nation in production of natural gas and 15th in the production of liquid hydrocarbons. “When combined with the offshore revenues, the total oil and gas monies collected by the state have averaged about $534 million per year from 2003 to 2007. This amount is equivalent to about 29 percent of the state’s general fund appropriation for fiscal 2008,” according to the board.
Contact Chris Norwood at firstname.lastname@example.org.