Monday, August 11, 2008

Fran Alexander's Northwest Arkansas Times column urges governor to persuade commission to use gas money for habitat preservation, restoration

Fran Alexander
Posted on Monday, August 11, 2008

“Anyone who can solve the problems of water will be worthy of two Nobel prizes — one for peace and one for science.” — John F. Kennedy If you read my July 28 article “Frack, rattle, and roll,” about the Fayetteville Shale gas drilling, you know that all that glitters is not necessarily pure gold. In the case of natural gas being released from “fracked” shale strata under several counties in central Arkansas, the big money being made there is awash with serious costs as well. Politicians blinded by the prospect of billions glutting the state economy have generally ignored these costs. So far, none of the money to be garnered from a severance tax on the gas bonanza or from leases has been specifically earmarked for environmental protection costs.
We often read about green issues with a lulled feeling of security that the network of laws and regulations in our country will protect us individually and collectively from dire ecological and financial consequences. It’s time to burst that bubble. Federal oil and gas production exemptions abound to the point that one is left feeling we are living on a wild, lawless frontier where random bullets of enviro horrors whiz by our heads daily. (See: www. earthworksaction. org / pubs / PetroleumExemptions 1 c. pdf ) Most citizens are also on their own financially when dealing with leases, taxes and the complicated jungle of resource prospectors. It seems even the state is not too sure what is in its best interests in regard to resources like oil, gas, bromide, coal or money, and is being especially slow in comprehending what is happening to its water, truly our most valuable resource.
Since my last article, a whole new wrinkle about gas drilling has slithered into the news. Neither the general public nor most of the state’s major environmental organizations (Audubon, Arkansas Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club ) were asked for any input before the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission signed two gas leases. One lease covers 7, 579 mineral acres and 15, 500 surface acres in the Petit Jean River Wildlife Management Area near Ola, in Yell County; the other for 3, 949 mineral acres and 11, 683 surface acres in the Gulf Mountain Wildlife Management Area in Van Buren County. Chesapeake Energy Corp. is parting with $ 29. 5 million and a 20 percent royalty interest to get to drill in these public lands.
Keep in mind that land surface (and therefore, habitat) is severely affected where cleared drilling pads, which range from one to five acres in size, are located, and by many miles of roads needing to be improved, expanded, or built for the hundreds of truck trips servicing drilling sites. Compressors hum loudly day and night, so noise can be a problem for humans and animals. And major impacts from pipeline rights of way, which can vary from 20 to 50 feet in width, occur because their pathways denude vast swaths of land. Many people do not realize that mineral leasing confers dominant use of the surface for extraction of underground minerals, no matter who owns the surface or whether they want drilling on their land or not. But on public lands the public should at least have been asked.
“What are we thinking?” is pretty much the question that environmentalists, snugly wrapped in our straitjackets, mutter to ourselves as we rock back and forth banging our heads into walls. I ended my last article asking, “Will we do anything about this situation?” meaning will we find a way to get at least some of the tax revenue from this gas production directed into preventing and repairing the environmental harm that will affect Arkansas’ land, air, water and human health? The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s leasing has provided a whole new pot o’ gold for grasping, and the commission and the governor are having somewhat of a standoff over who gets to decide how this wealth will be spent.
The commission says the money is theirs to direct to wildlife. Sounds good unless that “wildlife” includes trucks, salaries, buildings, game wardens, hunting programs, equipment, etc. for humans. It needs to be directed to habitat protection and repair, the essence of what could be harmed by drilling activities. The money could also go a long way in establishing methods to protect watersheds with conservation easements, thereby expanding preservation all over the state, not just within boundaries of management areas. Obviously, those borders have just been proven not to be sacrosanct when money rides into town.
The League of Women Voters has done extensive study on the Fayetteville Shale Play, taken tours to the drilling sites and in January co-hosted a forum on the issue with the Sierra Club. Mary Alice Serafini, state president of the League, said they have developed Consensus Positions, which they hope the state Legislature will adopt.
Position 1 is the recommendation that a single water authority be established to coordinate the use and regulation of the state’s public waters.
Position 2 recommends funding for oversight and inspection so that problems can be addressed before damage occurs instead of being only complaint driven.
Position 3 provides greater protection of landowners’ surface rights and of waterways.
Position 4 provides full disclosure of chemical additives being used in drilling and production activities that might infiltrate groundwater or pollute the air. (This is a “right-to-know” issue for anyone who otherwise might be exposed to harmful contaminants.)
Position 5 promotes the establishment of a fund for infrastructure changes and damages in areas affected by gas drilling.
So the League has been willing to do something. I hope you will too by contacting our legislators to tell them to support environmental protection and positions such as the League has taken. Immediately, however, we need to contact Gov. Mike Beebe and let him know we consider resource revenue the property of the citizens of Arkansas, and that the public’s money should go toward protecting our state for all of us, not just those with gas.
Fran Alexander is a local resident and an active environmentalist.
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