In Compromise Plan, Limited Fracking Is Approved for National Forest in Virginia

Source: The New York Times, November 19, 2014
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Drilling for oil and natural gas will be mostly off-limits in the largest national forest in the East, whose streams bring drinking water to Washington and Richmond, Va., the federal government said Tuesday.
But in a reversal of an earlier proposal to ban hydraulic fracturing throughout the forest, the controversial technique can go forward on privately controlled land in the George Washington National Forest, which rises in the mountains west of Charlottesville, Va.
The decision was a compromise that allowed some fracking while closing 90 percent of the forest to fracking and conventional drilling, which the earlier proposal would have permitted. In an unusual outcome, groups on all sides — industry, environmentalists and the governor of Virginia — claimed victory in the compromise management plan, years in the making.
Unlike in national parks or wilderness areas, industrial development — including mining, forestry and ski resorts — is permitted in national forests.
The final plan reversed a 2011 draft that would have allowed drilling in much of the 1.1-million-acre forest. It drew more than 50,000 public comments, most opposed to gas development anywhere in the forest, but some from industry saying fracking could be done safely, according to Forest Service officials.
”It was determined that where the oil and gas leasing would occur was a decision we need to make, but the method of extraction was not appropriate for us to make in this forest plan,” said Ken Arney, the regional forester for the Southern states, who signed the final plan.
The plan will allow drilling on 10,000 acres in the forest now leased for energy development and on 167,000 acres whose mineral rights are privately owned. Currently, there are no active gas wells in the forest or in surrounding private tracts.
Although the George Washington National Forest is on the southeast edge of the Marcellus Shale formation, where there has been an enormous gas drilling boom, forestry officials said the gas beneath the Virginia forest was less than 1 percent of the formation and so far not commercially attractive.
To develop existing leases in the forest would require further environmental approvals. Streams in the George Washington National Forest contribute drinking water to nearly three million people in Virginia, and the forest is the largest federal property in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The region includes some of the top agricultural counties in the state and supports a $10 million recreation and tourism economy.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, who has voiced opposition to fracking anywhere in the scenic forest, applauded the decision.
”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,” he said in a statement.
Environmental groups also welcomed the decision.
”The George Washington National Forest is a special forest,” said Sarah Francisco, a lawyer at the Southern Environmental Law Center. ”The Forest Service concluded the George Washington National Forest is not appropriate for industrial gas development, which is why it makes almost the entire forest unavailable for gas leasing and drilling.”
It was a compromise also welcomed by the Virginia Petroleum Council.
”Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing is helping to unlock the tremendous economic and job creation benefits that Virginians, and all Americans, need and want,” said Michael Ward, executive director of the council.

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