A proposal to restrict natural gas production in a Virginia national forest has become a flashpoint in the debate over whether drilling endangers water -- in this case water used by millions of people in the Washington region.
Managers of the water supply for the nation’s capital and suburban Virginia are pushing the U.S. Forest Service to limit hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the George Washington National Forest, the largest national forest east of the Mississippi and home to headwaters of the Potomac and James rivers.
“We still don’t have the science to inform the decision,” Jeanne Bailey, a spokeswoman for Fairfax Water, which serves 1.7 million customers in Virginia and has an intake on the Potomac, said. Regulators should “wait on the research to make the decision” to open the forest to drilling, she said.
The Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, proposed drilling limits in 2011, and now is reconsidering after gas companies said it was unwarranted and would set a bad precedent. A decision is expected later this year and if the service sticks to its initial proposal it would be the first time horizontal drilling into underground shale deposits had been banned in a national forest.
A surge in fracking in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia has created a financial windfall for some communities and pushed down natural gas prices. It also has drawn complaints from homeowners who say their water has been contaminated. Industry groups say evidence has failed to establish that water contamination is tied to fracking.
Under the Forest Service proposal, fracking itself, in which water, sand and chemicals are shot underground to free trapped gas, would not be banned. Horizontal drilling would be, though, effectively prohibiting the most effective way to extract gas from the Marcellus shale that runs under part of the forest.
Drillers could still use vertical wells, though they are less effective with shale. Private owners of mineral rights in the forest could still lease to drillers for horizontal drilling and fracking.
The George Washington National Forest, a portion of which is is West Virginia, is one of the most heavily visited because it’s within a few hours drive of millions of residents. The headwaters within it contribute to the drinking water of at least 30 communities from Washington to Richmond, Virginia, according to the Forest Service.
Enough study “has been done and information has been published to give us great cause of concern about the potential for degradation of the quality of our raw water supply as well as impact to the quantity of supply,” Thomas Jacobus, general manager of the Washington Aqueduct, wrote in comments filed with the Forest Service in support of the ban.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service also support a prohibition on horizontal drilling.
Drillers say it would set a bad precedent for development in the Marcellus shale, the gas-rich formation that stretches under Eastern states including parts of Virginia.
“We saw it as an effort to prevent the development of the shale resource,” Lee Fuller, vice president for government relations at the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said in an interview. “If you would adopt this premise as a matter of policy across the country, it would take significant opportunities” off the table, he said.
In many Western states, where the federal government is a major landholder, gas and oil production is booming. The 92,000 wells on public lands account for about 13 percent of U.S. natural-gas production and 5 percent of oil production.
Companies such as Halliburton Co. (HAL) and Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK) say that a ban on fracking is misguided. In response, the forest’s management is rethinking its plan, which has been delayed for months.
“What we spent a lot of time on is to see if we could establish some controls and still allow horizontal drilling,” Ken Landgraf, the local planning staff officer for the forest service, said in an interview, referring to the review of comments in response to the ban proposal. The staff is looking at restrictions on areas that would be open to drilling and safety procedures that could be mandated, he said.
Neighboring communities and other federal officials have joined in urging the forest service not ease off. Of the 53,000 comments submitted, 95 percent support a ban, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, which reviewed the public files.
“The George Washington National Forest is not appropriate for gas development, and all the impacts that come with that,” Sarah Francisco, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in an interview. Given its proximity to Washington and other metropolitan areas and its important fishing and hiking opportunities, “it’s really a different situation than other forests.”
The intensity of the fight over the George Washington forest belies the limited potential for extracting gas. So far, no companies have applied to explore. Landgraf said that while half of forest’s land sits atop Marcellus shale, it’s on the eastern edge and lacks the liquid-rich deposits favored by producers at this time.
Even if the service eases the ban, only a small fraction of the forest would see oil or gas development in the next 15 years, according to the 2011 draft. Still, technology is changing so quickly that an area shunned by the industry today could become attractive in five or 10 years, industry representatives say.
“Don’t lock the door,” Mike Ward, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council in Richmond, said he told the forest service. “Leave some flexibility in there for the future.”
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