By ROB MORITZ

Arkansas News Bureau

LITTLE ROCK — Opponents of natural gas exploration on federal tracts in Arkansas want an immediate halt to any chance of new drilling in national forests and to block any chance of drilling under Greer’s Ferry Lake.   

Richard Mays, the Heber Springs attorney for two environmental groups and several individuals in a federal lawsuit, says he plans to seek an injunction this week to temporarily halt the awarding of new permits for drilling under the lake and in the Ouachita and Ozark-St. Francis National Forests until a judge hears the pending litigation seeking environmental impact studies.

"We want to make sure that appropriate steps are taken to protect and preserve the forest and the lake," Mays said last week. 

At issue, according to the environmental lawyer, is the practice of "fracking," a process in which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals injected at high pressure into the gas deposits to fracture the rock and free the natural gas.

"Fracking activity has a lot of potential consequences that are not well understood and are potentially harmful to the environment and need to be studied much better than they have done so far," Mays said.

Diane Hendry, spokeswoman for the federal Bureau of Land Management, which sets the standards for oil and gas drilling and would determine whether the drilling permits should be issue, declined comment last week.

Mays said he originally planned to file the lawsuit just over drilling in the national forest, but decided to include under Greers Ferry Lake the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in October issue a license to Chesapeake Energy to begin seismic testing under the lake to determine the feasibility of extracting the natural gas.

Chesapeake, a leader in natural gas exploration in the Fayetteville Shale play area, completed its testing earlier in May even though the license runs through the end of September. The company has said it has no immediate plans to drill under the lake.

The 40,500-acre Greers Ferry reservoir in Cleburne and Van Buren counties supplies water to a number of cities and rural water systems in north-central Arkansas and serves as a popular recreational area.

Laurie Driver, spokeswoman for Corps’ Little Rock District, said the agency will not allow drilling on Corps-owned property or directly into the lake. However, she said there would be little the agency could do if a company acquired mineral rights near the lake and drilled horizontally under the lake bed to extract natural gas.

"I believe that they would have to get environmental impact statements on drillings and things, and those are all steps that would need to be done before anything else could be done," Driver said. 

Chesapeake Energy announced in February the sale of its interests in the Fayetteville Shale to BHP Billiton for $4.75 billion. The company did not return calls Thursday and Friday seeking comment.

Opponents are skeptical.

"Of course the seismic work is a prelude to drilling. They wouldn’t be doing the seismic work if they didn’t have the intention to drill," Mays said.

"They have the nerve to say, ‘Oh, there are no plans to drill under the lake,’ but there are wells within a mile of the lakeshore right now," said Len Uecker, president of the group Save Greers Ferry Lake. "How would anyone believe that further testing in the lake wouldn’t be with the intent to drill in and under the lake?"

Uecker said his group has a 2,400 member mailing list but it is not a party in Mays’ lawsuit.

"Extensive drilling destroys the land, takes away the watershed and threatens the water," he said. "All it would take would be one accident to pollute the lake and that would be a tremendous economic blow to the area."

On drilling in the national forest, the lawsuit alleges the number of wells currently in the forest far exceeds the estimates made by the Bureau of Land Management in 2005 after an environmental impact study and resource management plan.

The lawsuit asks that a new environmental study and resource plan be conducted.

Mays said the 2005 study estimated a maximum of 20 wells would be drilled in the forest within 10 years and that the drilling would affect a maximum of 80 acres.

However, the Bureau of Land Management added a supplement to the original 2005 study, saying that the number of expected wells by 2015 is more than 1,700 affecting a maximum of about 25,000 acres in the forest.

The lawsuit alleges there was no public comment period before the supplement was added, and no additional environmental studies were done.

"We think it is a significant change and we also think they’ve underestimated the number of wells, and they’ve underestimated the surface impact of it," Mays said. "What we are trying to do (in filing for an injunction) is get the agency not to issue any more permits ... until we have a hearing on the merits of the case."

Along with the Bureau of Land Management, others named in the lawsuit include the U.S. Forest Services and the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Interior, Army and Defense, and Corps of Engineers.

Clay Weisenberger, attorney for the Corps’ Little Rock District, declined comment about the lawsuit.