Nearing A Resolution

June Release Of GW Forest Plan Revives Fracking Debate

Posted: May 3, 2013

Sarah Francisco, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, discusses the possibility of drinking water contamination while atop Reddish Knob last week. (Photos by Nikki Fox / DN-R)
Lynn Cameron, of Friends of Shenandoah Mountain, talks about the potential effects of fracking in the George Washington National Forest at Briery Branch Lake.
Briery Branch Lake was seen on a media tour of the George Washington National Forest with local and state environmental experts last week. The panel discussed the potential effects of fracking on the forest.
The George Washington National Forest management plan that’s been in the works for nearly six years should finally be released come the end of June, according to Ken Landgraf, U.S. Forest Service planning staff officer.

No matter the final result, it will inevitably cause a long sigh of relief for some and considerable concern for others.

Although Landgraf said the aspect of the plan that’s still delaying its release is unrelated, the most controversial piece in the document is the Forest Service’s decision on gas leasing and horizontal drilling — a method used in conjunction with high-pressure hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking.

Fracking involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals underground at high pressure to create cracks in rock, allowing natural gas to be collected.

Environmentalists are pushing for the Forest Service to maintain the stance proposed in the draft plan in 2011, a complete ban of horizontal drilling in the forest, which “would limit the most destructive and damaging form of fracking,” according to Sarah Francisco, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“[Fracking] just seems incompatible with what we have here,” said Lynn Cameron of Friends of Shenandoah Mountain, while standing next to Briery Branch Lake on the foot of that mountain range during a media tour of the forest last week.

Background

The forest’s plan will serve as a blueprint for how the 1.1-million-acre public tract of land should be managed during the next 10 to 15 years. The government is tasked with coming up with a plan that balances a host of desired uses, from recreation to developing available natural resources, such as logging.

Although the idea is for a new plan to come out every decade, the Forest Service usually takes longer to adopt one; the current plan was released in 1993.

That plan allows for gas leasing throughout nearly the entire forest, without any limitations on horizontal drilling, Landgraf said.

“[That’s] mostly because we weren’t really aware of [horizontal drilling] in 1993 when we made that decision,” he said.

After originally planning to release a draft management plan in December 2010, the Forest Service released the document in May the following year.

The draft plan prohibited horizontal drilling, the most commonly used technique to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation, which lies underneath parts of six states from New York to West Virginia, including much of the national forest along the Virginia-West Virginia border.

Banning horizontal drilling would effectively prevent energy companies from using hydraulic fracturing in the forest. They likely wouldn’t pursue gas in areas where the practice is banned because they’d get less bang for their buck using other methods, according to Kim Sandum, executive director of Rockingham County’s Community Alliance for Preservation.

Horizontal drilling has a “much bigger impact but a much bigger return [for developers],” she explained.

The process, a method that allows companies to release gas from stretches of shale in their natural horizontal position, is far more destructive than traditional vertical drilling, environmentalists say.

The Forest Service received more than 53,000 public comments on the draft plan — the vast majority in favor of the horizontal drilling ban. But the agency ultimately decided to reconsider the draft plan.

“Before we put out the draft, we did not hear much from the industry … and some of the folks that would be advocates for pursuing drilling,” Landgraf explained. “When we got comments on the draft, we did hear from some of those organizations. ... It kind of made us think … we do need to look at this a little bit deeper.”
 
While gas leases have been granted for roughly 12,000 acres within the forest — mostly in Highland County — no gas drilling is occurring, Francisco said.

What’s The Problem?

A main concern that environmentalists cite is the need to preserve the quality of water found within the national forest.

The forest is a direct source of drinking water for 262,000 people in the Valley, and another 4.5 million rely on it indirectly, according to environmental advocates.

Environmentalists claim that chemical contamination of rivers and streams through accidental spills of fracking fluid is a major problem, as well as sedimentation generated by the process.

The management plan could allow horizontal drilling but require a closed-loop system during fracking, meaning the fluids would — in theory — stay contained throughout the process, according to Landgraf.

The Forest Service also has considered other variations that would make fracking possible in the George Washington, such as allowing leasing in certain areas but banning those areas as physical well sites.

Even if the Forest Service were to allow for horizontal drilling in the new plan, the Marcellus Shale under the national forest could prove to contain less gas than expected, and the gas could be more difficult to release than it is in other regions, such as in Pennsylvania.

And, if fracking is approved as a permissible activity in the forest, any developer wishing to do so would still have to go through a permitting process, which could be denied.

“We don’t see this as being an imminent threat by any means,” Landgraf said.

Travis Windle, spokesman for Pittsburgh-based Marcellus Shale Coalition, said he hopes that the George Washington plan “will be in line with what [President Barack Obama] has laid out.”

The president has made it “abundantly clear” that the nation should encourage natural gas production, Windle said.

He added that Americans are experiencing more affordable energy costs thanks to natural gas development, which helps to keep the nation from relying on other countries for energy and it creates jobs.

Also, it’s in the best interest of the gas companies to protect the environment, he added.

“There’s been clear proof ... that it’s not an either-or question,” he said. “We can and must produce more natural gas here [at] home and protect our environment.”

Contact Candace Sipos at 574-6275 or csipos@dnronline.com