Despite the objections of environmental groups and Virginia’s Governor Terry McAuliffe, the U.S. Forest Service has left the door open to allow fracking in the East Coast’s largest national forest with the release of the forest’s new management plan. The USFS had originally considered banning fracking in George Washington National Forest, but energy companies complained when the draft plan was released in 2011.
The leasing of land for recreational and commercial pursuits in national forests is standard practice. However, concerns were voiced over the potential for fracking in the forest to pollute the downstream water supplies of more than three million people, as well as the water courses that run from the area into Chesapeake Bay. The potential for drilling sites and trucks to impact on wildlife and the recreational enjoyment of the forest’s one million annual visitors was also raised. Governor McAuliffe had previously stated that fracking would not be allowed in the forest while he was in office, but it turns out it is not his call.
In a media release accompanying the plan, the Forest Service states: “The plan includes a decision that limits availability for new oil and gas leasing, while establishing a comprehensive framework for potential development on about 10,000 acres where there are existing valid leases, as well as on 167,200 acres with existing private mineral rights. Presently, none of the existing federal leases or existing privately owned mineral rights on the Forest are active.” However, the Marcellus shale formation runs under about half the forest’s area. Currently,the formation is producing about $10 billion worth of natural gas per year from extraction in New York state and West Virginia.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for natural resources and environment, Robert Bonnie, was quoted by The Associated Press as saying, “We think we’ve ended up in a much better place, which is we are allowing oil and gas drilling. From a policy perspective, the Forest Service allows fracking on forest lands throughout the country. We didn’t want to make a policy decision or change policy related to fracking. This decision is about where it’s appropriate to do oil and gas leasing.” The plan is subject to appeal.
Photos by U.S. Forest Service