NRDC challenges illegal oil and gas leasing in Alabama National Forests

The following is a guest post from NRDC Legal Fellow Matthew McFeeley

NRDC has worked for years to fight irresponsible oil and gas development on federal public lands—primarly in the Rocky Mountain region. But many are unaware that oil and gas leasing has been expanding dramatically on public lands in the midwest and southeast parts of our country. One reason that the public is unaware is because federal agencies have not been providing the public with the information required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

To right this wrong, the BLM and U.S. Forest Service need to completely revamp their process for analyzing and approving new oil and gas leasing in national forests. To start, NRDC and partner groups have filed a protest against a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposal to lease over 43,000 acres in Alabama National Forests for oil and gas development.  The proposal was made without any analysis of the impacts that industrial oil and gas development could have on the forests, wildlife, or on the communities that depend on them for clean air and drinking water.  Instead, the proposal relies on a severely outdated analysis, turning a blind eye to the very real risks that widespread drilling and fracking could have.  The Southern Environmental Law Center is representing NRDC and Wild South in the matter. 

All but one of the challenged leases are in the Talladega National Forest.  Covering 42,965 acres, these leases represent more than ten percent of the forest. (The final lease, covering 73 acres, is in Alabama’s Conecuh National Forest.) 

BLM’s plan to lease these lands violates a number of federal laws.  Most egregious are the NEPA violations.  Before leasing, BLM is required to perform a site-specific analysis to determine the effects of its actions on the environment and public health and to allow the public to comment on the proposal.  BLM made no attempt to involve the public or to analyze the effects of large-scale drilling or hydraulic fracturing.  It did not even create maps of the proposed leases! (Another violation of the law.)  Without creating a map of all the leases, BLM cannot possibly expect to determine impacts on the people who use the forest, the communities who live nearby, or the threatened and endangered species who call the forest home.

BLM instead relied on a 2004 analysis that assumes that only one well would be drilled in the entire Talladega in a ten year period.  Even if the 2004 analysis had been site-specific, which it was not, it’s clear that the 2004 analysis is out of date.  Since 2006, when horizontal drilling and high-volume fracking were first put into widespread use, oil and gas extraction has exploded in shale formations. One of these shale formations, the Black Warrior Basin, lies beneath the Talladega National Forest. The Energy Information Administration has identified a number of active and potential areas for shale drilling in the area. 

The 2004 analysis does not even mention fracking or horizontal drilling, potential impacts from spills or leaks of fracking chemicals, or the potential effects from large drilling pads and thousands of truck trips.  It doesn’t consider the effects of fracking on the waters of the forest, which serve as a drinking water source for communities like Anniston and Jacksonville, Alabama, or whether this new development will harm the endangered and threatened wildlife species that call the Forest home.

BLM should withdraw these leases from its upcoming sale.  But the Alabama National Forests are not the only place in the national forest system where oil and gas leasing is moving ahead without the proper legal process. BLM needs to reexamine its leasing process for all National Forest lands and create a process that complies with the letter and the spirit of NEPA -- where all environmental impacts are considered, the information is provided to the public in a transparent way, and public input is assured. Any other path will only create more conflict and controversy, as communities continue to fight BLM’s poorly-considered proposals to pursue energy development at the expense of the many other uses of the forest.