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of leases to oil and gas companies, BLM failed to meet its obligation to protect these and other species by relying on outdated forest plans, ignoring the impact of habitat fragmentation, not considering the effects of fracking on the woodpecker, and ignoring the potential greenhouse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.

red-cockaded_woodpecker_insertNew 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.

Colonial Pipeline and site of Sept 2016 leak in Alabama

A Proper Picture of the Colonial Pipeline’s Past

On September 9, 2016 a pipeline leak was detected from the Colonial Pipeline by a mine inspector in Shelby County, Alabama. It is estimated to have spilled ~336,000 gallons of gasoline, resulting in the shutdown of a major part of America’s gasoline distribution system. As such, we thought it timely to provide some data and a map on the Colonial Pipeline Project.

Figure 1. Dynamic map of Colonial Pipeline route and related infrastructure

View Map Fullscreen | How Our Maps Work | The Sept. 2016 leak occurred in Shelby County, Alabama

Pipeline History

The Colonial Pipeline was built in 1963, with some segments dating back to at least 1954. Colonial carries gasoline and other refined petroleum projects throughout the South and Eastern U.S. – originating at Houston, Texas and terminating at the Port of New York and New Jersey. This ~5,000-mile pipeline travels through 12 states and the Gulf of Mexico at one point. According to available data, prior to the September 2016 incident for which the cause is still not known, roughly 113,382 gallons had been released from the Colonial Pipeline in 125 separate incidents since 2010 (Table 1).

Table 1. Reported Colonial Pipeline incident impacts by state, between 3/24/10 and 7/25/16

State Incidents (#) Barrels* Released Total Cost ($)
AL 10 91.49 2,718,683
GA 11 132.38 1,283,406
LA 23 86.05 1,002,379
MD 6 4.43 27,862
MS 6 27.36 299,738
NC 15 382.76 3,453,298
NJ 7 7.81 255,124
NY 2 27.71 88,426
PA 1 0.88 28,075
SC 9 1639.26 4,779,536
TN 2 90.2 1,326,300
TX 19 74.34 1,398,513
VA 14 134.89 15,153,471
Total** 125 2699.56 31,814,811
*1 Barrel = 42 U.S. Gallons

** The total amount of petroleum products spilled from the Colonial Pipeline in this time frame equates to roughly 113,382 gallons. This figure does not include the September 2016 spill of ~336,000 gallons.

Data source: PHMSA

Unfortunately, the Colonial Pipeline has also been the source of South Carolina’s largest pipeline spill. The incident occurred in 1996 near Fork Shoals, South Carolina and spilled nearly 1 million gallons of fuel into the Reedy River. The September 2016 spill has not reached any major waterways or protected ecological areas, to-date.

Additional Details

Owners of the pipeline include Koch Industries, South Korea’s National Pension Service and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Royal Dutch Shell, and Industry Funds Management.

For more details about the Colonial Pipeline, see Table 2.

Table 2. Specifications of the Colonial and/or Intercontinental pipeline

Pipeline Segments 1,1118
Mileage (mi.)
Avg. Length 4.3
Max. Length 206
Total Length 4,774
Segment Flow Direction (# Segments)
Null 657
East 33
North 59
Northeast 202
Northwest 68
South 20
Southeast 30
Southwest 14
West 35
Segment Bi-Directional (# Segments)
Null 643
No 429
Yes 46
Segment Location
State Number Total Mileage Avg. Mileage Long Avg. PSI Avg. Diameter (in.)
Alabama 11 782 71 206 794 35
Georgia 8 266 33 75 772 27
Gulf of Mexico 437 522 1.2 77 50 1.4
Louisiana 189 737 3.9 27 413 11
Maryland 11 68 6.2 9 781 30
Mississippi 63 56 0.9 15 784 29
North Carolina 13 146 11.2 23 812 27
New Jersey 65 314 4.8 28 785 28
New York 2 6.4 3.2 6.4 800 26
Pennsylvania 72 415 5.8 17 925 22
South Carolina 6 119 19.9 55 783 28
Texas 209 1,004 4.8 33 429 10
Virginia 32 340 10.6 22 795 27
PSI = Pounds per square inch (pressure)

Data source: US EIA

By Sam Rubright, Ted Auch, and Matt Kelso – FracTracker Alliance