By Duane W. Gang / The Tennessean
The University of Tennessee Board of Trustees in October will take up a plan to lease the natural gas rights on the 8,600-acre Cumberland Forest in Morgan and Scott counties.
The board will hear details of the plan before the university goes to the State Building Commission with a contract with a private company for the gas drilling, UT President Joe DiPietro said in a message Friday to trustees.
UT has received tremendous feedback on both sides of the issue. Most recently, the Southern Environmental Law Center sent a letter to the board raising concerns about the proposal, as did Annette Watson, a Harriman, Tenn., resident and Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientist.
Since at least 2001, UT has explored the idea of leasing the natural gas rights on the Cumberland Forest. Earlier proposals touted the move as a way to generate revenue, but the latest effort focuses on research into the environmental effects and best-management practices for extracting natural gas from the Chattanooga shale using hydraulic fracturing.
In March, the State Building Commission gave the UT Institute of Agriculture permission to seek bids. The university formally began seeking bids earlier this month.
The commission still would have to approve any formal contract, but DiPietro said that would not take place until after trustees get a presentation on the project at their Oct. 17-18 meeting.
DiPietro said trustees will learn details about specific research and how the university plans to avoid conflicts of interest, since UT would partner with a natural gas company on the project.
"You also should understand that since the late 1930s, when this property was acquired by the university from a coal mining company, the UT Institute of Agriculture has reforested the property, and hundreds of forestry, wildlife and associated social, biological and ecological research programs have been and continue to be conducted there," DiPietro told trustees.
"It's fair to say that no one is more concerned about protecting this unique outdoor laboratory than the university and the Institute of Agriculture."