Environmental groups around the state are outraged that the University of Tennessee is proposing to lease more than 8,636 acres of public land in East Tennessee to an energy company looking to do hydraulic fracturing for oil or gas.
The publicly owned property in Scott and Morgan counties would be leased for 20 years or as long as paying quantities of oil or gas are being produced. The land is known as the Cumberland Forest.
What's more, the quietly talked proposal -- which surfaced as a UT research effort in December -- has now been fast-tracked with little public discussion, and it now is on Thursday's agenda of the executive subcommittee of the State Building Commission.
The subcommittee must decide whether to approve UT's issuance of a request for proposal -- with a waiver of appraisals -- to enter into an oil lease, gas lease and coalbed methane lease on the land.
Dr. Kevin Hoyt, director of the UT Forest AgResearch and Education Center, said no one knows if there is gas beneath the university's land, or how much money the school would make.
But he said all of the proceeds would be "plowed back into the AgResearch Center -- not to the university general fund or toward the reduction or leveling of tuitions."
"People have said there should be more research on drilling and fracking for energy. Well, who better to do that than UTK? We're going to have a lot of people involved, and we're going to make some great discoveries," he said. "What's a better way to help the nation be energy independent and do it in an environmental way?"
But Eric Lewis, who belongs to a new anti-fracking group called Coalition for a frack-free Tennessee, was working feverishly Tuesday to get the word out that UT is reviving a proposal it made and withdrew in 2009.
"This area provides the headwaters of major watersheds that serve public water utilities and livestock needs," Lewis said.
Anne Davis, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, on Tuesday wrote to Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration Mark Emkes asking that the subcommittee "defer any decision ... until fiscal, environmental, conflict-of-interest, and transparency concerns can be resolved."
The building commission review is necessary because the university doesn't want to seek new appraisals for the land before asking drillers to make requests for lease proposals.
But Davis questioned whether the university and the state are prepared to be liable if fracking damages water supplies as it has in other states. She also suggested the research could be deemed tainted by the fact that drillers would be funding it.
"Insofar as this research initiative is offered as a public purpose for the [request for proposal], it deserves careful scrutiny," she said, noting that the subcommittee must be thoughtful for the university's reputation.
Hoyt said UT has policies that would prevent conflicts, and the drillers would have to agree to allow UT to direct the research.
Davis also questioned why the requests for proposal have not been made public.
She said the Southern Environmental Law Center began asking for documents on the proposal in early December but has not received them.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press was told by both state officials and university officials on Tuesday that the proposal is not final until the subcommittee acts.
"SELC and other concerned members of the public should have a meaningful opportunity to inspect relevant documents and offer input before any decision is made regarding this issue," she wrote to the subcommittee in her request for a deferral of Thursday's decision.
The letter was written on behalf of the coalition as well as the League of Women Voters of Tennessee, the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Tennessee Clean Water Network, Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning and SOCM.
The Cumberland Forest, established in 1947, is the largest field research unit in the UT Forest Resources AgResearch and Education Center.
Over the years, UT has used the forest for large- and small-scale forest and wildlife management research projects, as well as ecological demonstration projects. The forest also is the site of some of the earliest strip-mine reclamation research in Tennessee.
Hoyt said UT now hopes to drill about two wells a year, and drillers would be expected to finance the estimated $1.5 million per-well cost.