The Mississippi Fracking Fight: Saving Forests, Woodpeckers, and the Climate
By Wendy Park, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity
If the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) gets its way, large areas of Mississippi’s Bienville and Homochitto national forests will be opened up to destructive fracking. This would harm one of the last strongholds for the rare and beautiful red-cockaded woodpecker, create a new source of climate pollution, and fragment our public forests with roads, drilling pads and industrial equipment. That’s why we’re fighting back.
My colleagues and I at the Center for Biological Diversity believe that all species, great and small, must be preserved to ensure a healthy and diverse planet. Through science, law and media, we defend endangered animals and plants, and the land air, water, and climate they need. As an attorney with the Center’s Public Lands Program, I am helping to grow the “Keep It in the Ground” movement, calling on President Obama to halt new leases on federal lands for fracking, mining, and drilling that only benefit private corporations.
That step, which the president can take without congressional approval, would align U.S. energy policies with its climate goals and keep up to 450 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution from entering the atmosphere. Already leased federal fossil fuels will last far beyond the point when the world will exceed the carbon pollution limits set out in the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. That limit is expected to be exceeded in a little over four years. We simply cannot afford any more new leases.
Fracking Will Threaten Prime Woodpecker Habitat
In Mississippi, our concerns over the impact of fracking on the rare red-cockaded woodpecker and other species led us to administratively protest the proposed BLM auction of more than 4,200 acres of public land for oil and gas leases the Homochitto and Bienville national forests. The red-cockaded woodpecker is already in trouble. Loss of habitat and other pressures have shrunk its population to about 1% of its historic levels, or roughly 12,000 birds. In approving the auction of leases to oil and gas companies, BLM failed to meet its obligation to protect these and other species by relying on outdated forest plans, ignoring the impact of habitat fragmentation, not considering the effects of fracking on the woodpecker, and ignoring the potential greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas taken from these public lands. The public was also not adequately notified of BLM’s plans.
Mississippi National Forests, Potential BLM Oil & Gas Leasing Parcels, and Red Cockaded Woodpecker Sightings
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Fracking Consequences Ignored
According to the National Forest Service’s 2014 Forest Plan Environmental Impact Statement, core populations of the red-cockaded woodpecker live in both the Bienville and Homochitto national forests, which provide some of the most important habitat for the species in the state. The Bienville district contains the state’s largest population of these birds and is largely untouched by oil and gas development. The current woodpecker population is far below the target set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery plan. A healthy and fully recovered population will require large areas of mature forest. But the destruction of habitat caused by clearing land for drilling pads, roads, and pipelines will fragment the forest, undermining the species’ survival and recovery.
New leasing will likely result in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. In their environmental reviews, BLM and the Forest Service entirely ignore the potential for hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to be used in the Bienville and Homochitto national forests and their effects on the red-cockaded woodpecker. Fracking would have far worse environmental consequences than conventional drilling. Effects include increased pollution from larger rigs; risks of spills and contamination from transporting fracking chemicals and storing at the well pad; concentrated air pollution from housing multiple wells on a single well pad; greater waste generation; increased risks of endocrine disruption, birth defects, and cardiology hospitalization; and the risk of earthquakes caused by wastewater injection and the hydraulic fracturing process (as is evident in recent earthquakes in Oklahoma and other heavily fracked areas).
Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Climate Change
Oil and gas development also results in significant greenhouse gas emissions from construction, operating fossil-fuel powered equipment during production, reclamation, transportation, processing and refining, and combustion of the extracted product. But BLM and the Forest Service have refused to analyze potential emissions or climate change effects from new leasing. Climate change is expected to worsen conditions for the woodpecker, compounding the harms of destructive drilling practices. Extreme weather events will become more frequent in the Southeast U.S. as temperatures rise. Hurricane Katrina resulted in significant losses of woodpecker habitat and birds in the Mississippi national forests. The Forest Service should be redoubling its efforts to restore and preserve habitat, but instead it is turning a blind eye to climate change threats.
At a time when world leaders are meeting in Morocco to discuss the climate crisis and scientists tell us we already have enough oil and gas fields operating to push us past dangerous warming thresholds, it’s deeply disturbing that the Obama administration continues to push for even more oil and gas leases on America’s public lands. The BLM’s refusal to acknowledge and analyze the effects of fracking on the climate, at-risk species, and their habitat, is not only inexcusable it is illegal. The science is clear: The best way to address catastrophic warming — and protect wildlife — is to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
Photographs for this article were sourced from the U.S. Department of Agriculture fair-use photostream.