When you think of the protected wilderness that is the Talladega National Forest, stretched across 11 counties here in Alabama, maybe you think of hiking, camping, hunting and fishing. Maybe you think of swimming and boating or scenic drives. Maybe you just think of all those beautiful trees and the abundant wildlife enjoying refuge in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
Pretty soon, when you think of the Talladega National Forest, you may be thinking of contaminated drinking water, noise pollution and increased big truck traffic. Also, one very ugly word: fracking.
On Flag Day, June 14, the United States Bureau of Land Management is planning to sell oil and gas leases on 43,000 acres of land in the Talladega and Conecuh National Forests to interested drillers. That’s right, the agency tasked with administering “America’s Great Outdoors” for conservation and recreation is perfectly willing and eager to defile it with oil exploration.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, representing conservation groups Wild South and the National Resources Defense Council and resisting what’s termed “an illegal giveaway to the oil and gas industry,” has filed a letter of protest with the BLM over the way the sale was set up. “More than 10 percent of the Talladega National Forest is being put on the auction block without giving the public any chance to weigh in,” said Matthew McFeeley of the NRDC.
According to Keith Johnston of the SELC, there are numerous procedural problems with the way BLM has set up this sale, but he sums up the situation succinctly: “Basically, we don’t think our national forests should become an oil and gas development field.”
A 2004 U.S. Forest Service management plan set aside these parcels of land for potential oil and gas development, but Johnston says new information obtained since then merits reconsidering the Talladega and Conecuh sites. There are new issues raised by the National Environmental Policy Act, revised lists of endangered species in the forests and new federal rules governing oil and gas drilling on public lands, none of which were covered in the 2004 survey.
Then there is the impact of new technology. “We know that hydraulic fracturing has exploded in use and that that’s become really widely used in extracting gas from shale, so it certainly has the potential to be used here,” Johnston said.
Ah, yes. Hydraulic fracturing, popularly known as fracking. Basically you pump millions of gallons of chemicals and water at high pressure into the ground to bust up porous rocks below, in the process releasing natural gas to the surface.
Fracking can release a lot of other stuff, too, like t-butyl alcohol, arsenic, toluene and chloromethane, and if you’re unlucky enough to have an aquifer nearby, it can pump all this stuff right into your drinking water. (As a reminder to our friends in Anniston and Jacksonville, two cities that depend on the Talladega forest for their H2O, if you get methane gas in your water, don’t smoke when you’re doing the dishes.)
The gas industry insists that fracking is not just efficient, but safe. Pesky scientists suggest otherwise. Research from the State University of New York states that exposure effects from fracking potentially include “elevated risk for certain cancers” for humans and as much as eight tons of sediment per fractured well that’ll wind up in the local waterways to adversely affect the critters that live there. A biologist from Ithaca College has testified before the New York State Assembly that, with fracking, you get not only carcinogens floating into your ecosystem, but neurological poisons, radioactive elements and reproductive toxicants.
In 2011, the EPA bucked the gas industry’s assurances and determined that fracking can indeed pollute groundwater. Nevertheless, President Obama tacitly endorsed the process in his 2012 State of the Union speech, and lawmakers of both parties, perhaps beholden to lavish contributors, have been generally and unsurprisingly mute on the subject. (Last month the Interior Department issued a new rule mandating disclosure of the chemicals frackers pump into the ground, but, as a result of oil industry lobbyists’ influence, the despoilers won’t have to disclose anything until after all the drilling’s done. Thanks for the help, guys.)
Despite the tangible dangers fracking poses, only two states have banned it so far (New Jersey for one year and Vermont altogether). Given Alabama’s unblemished record in kowtowing to energy tycoons’ wishes, don’t look for us to be number three.
The hyperbolic rhetoric behind “drill, baby, drill” was always illogical. Must oil companies collapse like soufflés when they have no more product to wrest from the ground? Seems unlikely. People so used to multi-billion-dollar profits on their spreadsheets will surely find a way to create similar profits from non-dinosaur-based energy production, and if it’s renewable energy, so much the better.
Meanwhile, must we have oily fingers all over everything? Is it not reasonable that there might be acreage in Alabama other than a national forest atop a geological fault line where it might be feasible to extract petroleum? If, for example, Senators Sessions and Shelby are so dead set on free-market initiative, maybe some of their well-heeled buds might want to try their luck fracking some of the thousands of under-taxed acres of woodlands on hunting plantations they own throughout the state.
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club (an environmental group recently revealed to have taken $25 million in donations from Chesapeake Energy, one of the biggest fracking companies in the nation), made an astute comment last week: “Instead of rushing to see how quickly we can extract natural gas, we should be focusing on how to be sure we are using less, and safeguarding our health and environment….”
Meanwhile, on Flag Day, June 14, the highest bidder may win the right to despoil our public lands for the sake of private profits. As little Johnny Mellencamp used to sing, Ain’t that America something to see?
Courtney Haden is a Weld for Birmingham columnist. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.