RICHMOND — Environmental groups and officials praised the U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday for restricting future oil and gas drilling to a small portion of the George Washington National Forest, while some expressed disappointment that any fracking could be allowed.
A final plan released Tuesday allows all forms of drilling — including the controversial high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — in about 16 percent of the popular national forest, which comprises 1.1 million acres in Virginia and West Virginia.
Sarah Francisco, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, called the decision a good one that recognizes that most of the forest is “not appropriate for industrial gas development.”
“We think this decision shows the Forest Service listened to the local community, to the local citizens, to the local governments around the forest that felt strongly that the G.W. was not appropriate for industrial gas development,” she said on a conference call with reporters.
Glen Besa, director of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, called it encouraging that the Forest Service protected most of the forest from new leases “despite tremendous industry pressure to do the opposite.”
Widespread fracking could have led to the pollution of drinking water sources for much of the region, including Washington, and heavy truck traffic associated with large-scale industrial drilling could have marred the forest’s scenic beauty, he said.
“Unfortunately, these risks remain for the existing leases in the forest,” Besa said in a statement. “While the leases may be low value, they are certainly high risk. As the closest national forest to metropolitan Washington, D.C., the George Washington provides a unique outdoor experience for millions of people, one that can never be replaced. People don’t come to the George Washington National Forest to hike in an industrial park or to breathe polluted air.”
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has strenuously objected to fracking in the forest, but he praised the Forest Service on Tuesday for prohibiting fracking in most of it.
“I applaud today’s decision to effectively ban gas and oil drilling in the George Washington National Forest on all land under their control,” he said in a statement. “Over the past few months, I have communicated with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and top administration officials about Virginians’ concerns regarding proposals to open public lands in the forest to fracking activity, and I believe today’s unprecedented decision is evidence that our voices were heard.”
A preliminary proposal released three years ago would have made most of the forest available for leasing and gas drilling, but it would have specifically banned horizontal drilling, Francisco said.
The combination of horizontal drilling with high-volume fracking has made it possible for companies to extract natural gas from shale formations across the country. The process involves drilling a deep vertical well that is then drilled horizontally so millions of gallons of water and toxic chemicals can be blasted into the ground to fracture shale, releasing the gas.
The draft proposal was widely praised. Of the 53,000 public comments that the Forest Service received on the draft plan, about 50,000 supported restrictions on fracking, according to the Shenandoah Valley Network, a land protection group.
That support “was based on the expectation that the horizontal drilling prohibition effectively would prevent shale gas drilling and fracking on the G.W. National Forest. Folks supported that prohibition because they believed it would protect the forest from the whole spectrum of impacts related to gas drilling and fracking,” Francisco said.
However, the draft plan would have allowed vertical drilling in most of the forest, she said. The final plan “takes a different approach but achieves a similar goal,” she said.
Instead of taking a stance on any specific fracking technique, the Forest Service said it will stop leasing additional land for development. Oil and gas companies already lease about 10,000 acres within the forest and own the underground mineral rights for an additional 167,000 acres. That land will remain open for drilling.
If a company wants to drill on land it leases, it must first obtain federal and state permits. A private owner of mineral rights must obtain only a state permit.
Asked whether the McAuliffe administration would issue the permits, the governor’s press secretary, Brian Coy, said the matter is under review.
U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) also praised the move to close most of the forest to all forms of fracking and said they have urged the agency to consider concerns about the potential impacts of horizontal drilling.
“We’re pleased that the Forest Service’s final management plan announced today for the George Washington National Forest closes the overwhelming majority of lands in the Forest to horizontal drilling activities, with the remaining portion comprising acreage that has been leased in the past but never developed,” the senators said in a joint statement.
The new policy is expected to take effect early next year; there is currently no gas drilling in the forest.