State Considers Coal Mining, Oil Drilling On Protected Lands
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It's state land -- bought with taxpayer money.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates has learned at least one cash-strapped agency is considering leasing mineral rights on protected land that was set aside for the public to enjoy.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is currently negotiating with a coal company to allow coal mining on a wildlife area, as well as an oil company to allow drilling on a wetland.
Until now, state officials have repeatedly rejected energy companies eager for access to state land on which the state owns the mineral rights.
State officials expressed concern about "diminishing the value" of the land and "bad publicity," even though a rough state estimate said Tennessee's mineral rights are worth $500 million.
But Steve Patrick, assistant director with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said the agency is now considering leases it never has before.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Is this about the money for TWRA?"
"Well yeah," Patrick responded. "That's certainly what gets your attention. We are a self-funded agency."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Patrick, "This is controversial even within your department?"
"It is," he admitted.
Bison Exploration Drilling wants access to 200 acres of wetlands in East Tennessee. It has claimed that TWRA would get more than $5.6 million in royalties.
TWRA's real estate specialist wrote to Bison Drilling in January stating, "This is groundbreaking, be a good chance to get in while the state is figuring out what they are doing."
Anne Davis with the Southern Environmental Law Center worries state agencies are too eager to start selling mineral rights.
"When we start drilling on public land we ought to think about where this is going," Davis said.
She is worried the state has changed its stance on mining on public land.
"I'm really concerned that it's a change in policy that seems to have happened behind closed doors without the public being aware of it," Davis said.
The final decision about whether to allow mining on state land is up to the State Building Commission.
Under past governors, it has refused to approve leasing state minerals.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Patrick, "What is the commission saying now?"
Patrick responded, "Well obviously they are saying yes."
"This is a change in policy?" we asked.
"As far as I know, yes," Patrick said.
The State Building Commission just allowed the University of Tennessee to move forward with plans to drill for natural gas on 8000 acres of UT land.
Emails show that, on the day the board discussed the University of Tennessee, Bison Drilling flew someone in from Texas to attend the meeting.
E-mails show he was eager to meet with TWRA officials face to face after months of communicating by e-mail.
TWRA is also negotiating with Crossville Coal to allow the company to mine under the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area.
The 80,000 acres were set aside for hunting, but Crossville Coal wants to expand its idle mine and dig under Catoosa.
TWRA has already granted the company a right of entry to see how much coal is on the wildlife area.
The proposed contract would be worth millions of dollars, but underground coal mining raises concerns about damage to wildlife and groundwater.
For a cash-strapped state, the lure of money may be hard to ignore.