"We're still concerned about the potential lease sale and obviously don't want the agencies to re-offer those parcels," said Sarah Francisco, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. Francisco was part of a team that filed a formal letter of protest with the federal agencies regarding the sale on behalf of Wild South and the National Resources Defense Council.
The leases sparked a controversy among many Calhoun County residents who were concerned the lease of land would lead to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the forest. Fracking is a process used to get natural gas from unconventional sources, such as shale, and has led to a major national debate over the environmental effects of such drilling.
It was announced in April that the 43,000 acres of land parcels were set to be auctioned by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service on June 14. However, the issue was not widely known in Calhoun County until the Southern Environmental Law Center began issuing press releases regarding the issue.
After much protest from environmental groups and local residents –- and a letter from U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, requesting more time --- the agencies announced on June 8 that the leases would be postponed. In a press release, the agencies said the delay was to "allow for additional public engagement, including public informational meetings."
The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are still in the early planning stages of an informational meeting, tentatively scheduled for late August in Montgomery, where the Alabama office of the National Forest Service is headquartered.
"The whole idea behind the meeting is that people will understand how they can offer their opinions or their thoughts or their feelings or information about decisions that are being made," said Stephanie Neil Johnson, public affairs director for the southern region of the Forest Service. "And we're going to share information about the processes we use to make decisions and how they can provide input into those processes."
But the postponing of the lease for additional public engagement was an inconvenience for companies that were interested in the forest property.
Meade Hufford, the owner of Energy Land Services, was one of 10 qualified bidders who attended the auction in June, in which a number of other leases were sold as well.
Hufford said he was not notified the leases in Alabama had been pulled until the day of the auction. Hufford buys land on behalf of clients looking to develop it for energy purposes.
"I, along with several other oil and gas landmen and operators, were very disappointed because these environmentalists waited until the last minute to raise concern when they had months and years to lodge complaints," Hufford wrote in an email. "This is not the first lease sale for this National Forest."
Hufford said that leases in the national forest had been offered previously.
Hufford also said, though, that he and his clients did not have immediate plans to begin a hydraulic fracturing site in the forest. Rather, his interest was in conventional drilling.
Although many environmentalists have concerns about conventional drilling as well, hydraulic fracturing is more damaging, Francisco said.
"Everything about this kind of gas drilling is larger," Francisco said of fracking. "It's on a more intensive and larger scale."
But Francisco still believes the impact of any type of drilling could have harmful environmental effects.
"Although the scale of individual conventional drilling operations is usually smaller than the scale of high-volume hydraulic fracturing operations, they can still be very disruptive to other natural forest resources, particularly if there is a lot of that type of gas development," she said.
Francisco added that because there are no specifications as to how those who own the lease develop the lands, substantial studies should be done on a range of possibilities.
"The Forest Service and [the Bureau of Land Management] have an obligation to consider all the impacts that the leaseholder would be entitled to before making those lands available for leasing," she said.
Hufford also said, though, that the drilling helps to bring in a substantial amount of jobs and money for local communities, both through the drilling itself and the indirect effects of having workers shop, eat and live in the community.
According to Bureau of Land Management estimates, the revenue from mineral leasing activities, such as natural gas, coal and others, totaled $10.2 million in Alabama in 2011. Alabama had the third-highest revenue of 21 reported states, with Louisiana and Missouri ranking first and second respectively. Of that total, $4.8 million came back to the state of Alabama. The remaining amount went to the general treasury of the federal government.
Officials at the Alabama Legislative Fiscal Office were not immediately able to comment on where the money disbursed to Alabama went.
Although natural gas prices have been low recently, Hufford said that wouldn't stop the oil and gas industry from continuing to develop.
"It was just a few years ago that natural gas was at an all-time high," he said. "The market fluctuates considerably, and our business is in it for the long haul."
Hufford said that the entire industry is often blamed for problems that may occur in isolation. He urged environmentalists to look deeper into the issue and educate themselves on the benefits and risks associated with the industry.
Hufford also said that the industry is necessary to the well-being of the American economy.
"If it wasn't for the oil and gas industry, it would be hard to keep driving your car or heating your home," Hufford said.