Environmental activists chalked it up as a victory when the University of Tennessee failed this month to receive any bids for a natural gas drilling project on an 8,600-acre publicly owned research forest.

The prospect of drilling for natural gas — and the controversial practice to extract it known as fracking — set off intense debate in the state about how best to use public land and resources, particularly in the university's Cumberland Forest.

But Tennessee residents aren't alone in grappling with the issue. It's a debate that is taking place throughout the South and beyond as the nation's natural gas boom spreads and whole new swaths of public land are now eyed as potential energy sources.

"There is growing pressure for all things energy on the public lands," said John Freemuth, a political science professor and public land expert at Boise State University in Idaho.

Freemuth said additional conflicts are only going to arise as oil and gas reserves are discovered in new areas — places not traditionally known for battles over mineral rights.

"There is going to be more of it," he said.

The George Washington National Forest in Virginia, the largest national forest east of the Mississippi, is considering an update to its long-term management plan that would allow drilling. The idea has spurred debate among residents, the natural gas industry and from those maintaining drinking water supplies in the Washington area.

The Talladega National Forest in Alabama allows for natural gas exploration and last year was poised to auction leases on 43,000 acres. The Bureau of Land Management, which handles the sales, pulled the land off the auction block to allow more public input. Environmental groups are vowing to rally opposition should the sale reemerge.

"When it does, we have to mount our resistance," said Mark Kolinski, the Alabama program director for WildSouth, an environmental group leading a "Kill the Drill" campaign in Talladega.

In December, about 200 acres in the Homochitto National Forest in Mississippi are expected to go up for auction to those interested in leasing it for oil and gas exploration.

On Friday, the Forest Service said natural gas drilling is a well-accepted use on forest land and currently allowed in several areas. The agency said it balances multiple uses and fully evaluates the impact on the environment.

Hydraulic fracturing and the ability to drill horizontally deep below ground to reach gas-rich shale rock has led to a natural gas boom in the country. Hydraulic fracturing, often known as fracking, is a method to inject water, chemicals, sand and other materials into the ground to break apart the shale and release the natural gas.

The industry insists it is safe, but some residents and environmental activists are worried the process could pollute drinking water supplies and cause health problems.

The Obama administration has touted the increase in production, which has led to a drop in natural gas prices, and the president in a five-point jobs plan unveiled this summer called for boosting investments in energy, particularly wind, solar and natural gas.

Fracking prohibited

In the George Washington forest, the Forest Service's draft management plan — a document that guides operations for the next decade or more — would allow natural gas exploration.

But the plan only allows for vertical drilling. Horizontal drilling — and by extension, fracking — would be prohibited under the plan. The Forest Service said it is concerned about water quality.

The Forest Service received thousands of comments on the plan. Everyone from local residents throughout the Shenandoah Valley to some of the nation's largest energy firms such as ConocoPhillips, Chesapeake Energy and Halliburton Energy Services weighed in on the issue. Nine members of Congress submitted comments.

The Forest Service did not make anyone available for an interview about the proposed plan for the George Washington National Forest, despite requests over the course of four days last week.

But by email, the Forest Service said not all accepted uses in national forests are available on every acre. Each forest plan fully evaluates the impact on the environment. If there are gas leases, those also must evaluate any environmental impacts, the Forest Service said.

The plan for the George Washington National Forest is expected to be finalized in the coming months.

Sarah Francisco, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, Va., said there had never been natural gas drilling in the George Washington National Forest.

"There is a lot of public support for saying please don't open the door to gas drilling and hydro fracking in the GW," she said.

Industry officials say the Forest Service has gone too far. Prohibiting horizontal drilling has no basis in fact, industry groups say. Halliburton Energy called the ban "unjustified and is inconsistent with the current Administration's efforts to increase U.S. energy security and control emissions of greenhouse gases."

Dan Whitten, a spokesman for America's Natural Gas Alliance, another industry group, said there had been tremendous upsides to the recent gas boom.

"This natural gas resource gives us historic opportunities with energy security and helping clean up our environment," he said. "People across party lines and political ideologies have arrived at the fact that natural gas really is a part of the solution to our nation's energy challenges."

No formal bid

In Tennessee, only one company submitted a response to UT's plan to drill for natural gas and research the impact of fracking on the environment. But the company, Pennsylvania-based CONSOL Energy, did not submit a formal bid.

In a letter to the university, the company said it could not accept the terms of the proposal, since they were not tied to the average monthly price of natural gas. Still, the company said it remained interested in prospect of working with the university.

University officials have not ruled out seeking new bids should the "public need" arise.

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