UT Opens Bidding for Oil and Gas Drilling—and Fracking—On State Land

On June 7, the University of Tennessee's purchasing department issued a request for proposal, or RFP. There was nothing much unusual about this on the surface—UT issues RFPs all the time. What was special about this particular RFP, however, was its subject matter: The university officially announced it was seeking an industry partner for an oil- and gas-drilling "research project" in the school's Cumberland Forest field research unit in Scott and Morgan Counties.

Of course, the RFP had been expected for months, ever since the State Building Commission's Executive Subcommittee gave the university permission for the project back in March. The Board of Trustees will still have to approve the RFP at its October meeting, and the full State Building Commission will take it up after that. If all falls into place the way UT hopes, drilling could start on the forest land in "a year or so," according to Cumberland Forest manager Martin Schubert.

Schubert actually lives in a house in the forest itself, with his wife and children. He's been the manager of the research area for 15 years; before that, he worked in the forest as part of his graduate research for his forestry degree, first planting trees there in 1991. But Schubert seems surprisingly okay with the idea that the land where he spends all of his time may be torn up for oil and gas interests.

"Our mission is to research natural resources," Schubert says. "We have a duty as a land-grant institution to conduct science."

Last Friday, Schubert and Forest Resources AgResearch and Education Center Director Kevin Hoyt led a group of interested parties around a piece of the forest on Little Brushy Mountain. There were employees from five energy companies—Consol, Atlas, PCI, Miller, and Range Resources—and a handful of reporters. There were also representatives from Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, and the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).

Once on the mountaintop, after a jolting ride up a steep and treacherous old mining road, Schubert pointed out the fecundity of the land around him.

"Some of our most productive forests are on this area," Schubert says, gesturing to the towering pines and the abundant mossy undergrowth. The land he was standing on, he explained, was once a strip mine, the mountaintop ravaged for decades in a quest of coal. Now, thanks to best-management practices by UT researchers, it is a thriving ecosystem.

So why would the university want to potentially disturb that? Well, Schubert says, to "potentially help improve environmental practices" at other drilling sites.

"A lot of this research would not or could not get done without an initiative such as this," Schubert explains.

Environmentalists might laugh at this, the irony of disturbing pristine forest land on a reclaimed strip mine to drill for more minerals, the idea that building roads in the forest could be a good thing. But Hoyt insists the drilling won't affect any fragile ecosystems.

"We will not allow drilling to take place in a highly ecologically sensitive area, or in the middle of a current research project," Hoyt told the prospective investors.

The fact that some of the forest land might be off the table seemed to take a few of the energy company representatives by surprise. One, Doug Clark of Consol, said he would need more detailed maps of what was and wasn't off limits before figuring out how many potential drill sites the company would consider. Clark said the sites could be as small as 100 feet by 100 feet, or as big as 1.5 acres, depending on the type of well and the topography.

UT owns 8,600 acres in the Cumberland Forest, and it's requesting companies drill at least one vertical well and five horizontal wells per lease period. The lease is a five-year one, renewable for up to 20 years, meaning a minimum of 24 wells on the property is likely. But the RFP also awards points for the number of proposed wells, so it's in a company's best interest to propose many more wells—and it's in UT's best financial interest to have more wells drilled.

And if UT makes money off the project—well, they're already doing that with a lot of other agricultural research projects, says Schubert.

"We raise cows. We raise commodities," Schubert says. The total amount AgResearch made in FY 2012 from selling commodities—milk, timber, cotton, soy beans, etc.—was between $3-$4 million.

But these kind of statements are unlikely to quell concerns of environmentalists, especially after SELC uncovered a trove of UT e-mails dating back a decade in which upper-level administrators talk about the project as one specifically designed to make money, with the research aspect being constructed to make the drilling seem palatable. (The News Sentinel and the Chattanooga Times Free Press have both documented these e-mails extensively.)

"They don't have research designs," says Sandra Goss, the director of TCWP and a member of the community advisory council UT created to address concerns about the project. "I want UT to be a thriving, respected university. ... We have proposed that UT go to state land where drilling is already in process to do their research."

There are already 250 acres of the Cumberland Forest under an oil and gas lease, as well as numerous state-owned sites where drilling is happening—places where the state owns the land but not the mineral rights. But Schubert says for research purposes, it's better to start a project from scratch.

"The fewer variables you have, the greater potential you have to address a specific question," Schubert says.

Whether for research or money, RFPs are due Aug. 7. But don't expect the debate to end until the SBC meets late this fall.