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Nat'l Forest Partial Fracking Plan Gets Muted Support

Taber Andrew Bain

On November 18th, the U.S. Forest Service released a new management plan for the George Washington National Forest.

The Forest covers more than a million acres in the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains.  Although the plan will allow hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas in parts of the Forest, many environmentalists were actually pleased with the announcement.  WMRA’s Andrew Jenner has the story.

The plan was long-delayed and heavily scrutinized, thanks to geology: more than half the forest sits atop the Marcellus shale, the same formation that’s become a lucrative source of natural gas in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The gas is extracted by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and for the past three years, the forest service has been deliberating whether to allow the controversial practice here. In the end, it decided pretty much no – which makes a lot of people happy.

KIM SANDUM:  I’d say it’s generally good news. I was glad to see the way they handled the issue with oil and gas drilling.

Kim Sandum directs the Community Alliance for Preservation, an organization that warned fracking would imperil the environment, public water sources, roads and other economic activity.

SANDUM: What was proposed three years ago was specifically a ban on horizontal drilling, but all of the forest would have been left open for vertical drilling. So it would have all been still available for oil and gas development – just a different kind. What the final plan says is they haven’t looked at specific techniques, either vertical or horizontal. They’ve just said it’s not appropriate.

There are two small exceptions. The first is about 10,000 acres in Highland County leased for oil and gas development in 2008. The company holding that lease has made no move to develop it, and it expires in 2018. But after that, says forest planning staff officer Ken Landgraf:

KEN LANDGRAF: We would make them available for lease again in the future if someone was interested in them.

The only other parts of the forest where fracking could occur are the roughly 167,000 acres – about 16 percent of the forest – where there’s private ownership of subsurface mineral rights. But not all of that area sits above the Marcellus shale. And in some places, that private ownership is only partial private ownership, with the forest controlling a majority share. Practically speaking, fracking probably couldn’t happen there either. In any case, the forest service itself doesn’t even know how many acres are subject either to full or partial private mineral ownership. They’ve never bothered to add it up because no one has ever shown any real interest in drilling for gas in the forest.

LANDGRAF: For the past 21 years, just about the entire national forest has been available for gas leasing. The only interest we had was on 10,000 acres of the forest that are under lease. Where the ownership of the minerals is held in private hands, none of that has been developed. Since there has been no interest in developing gas, we decided in our final plan to not make any additional areas available for leasing.

Sandum credits much of that decision to the tens of thousands of citizens who opposed fracking during the draft plan comment period, plus resolutions to the same effect from 11 local governments.

SANDUM: It’s certainly been a long time working on this project, a lot of learning, a lot of people involved, but I’m really thankful that our local boards of supervisors and city councils and town folks all came to the same realization and pulled together and that the forest service listened.

Surprisingly, the oil and gas industry also likes this plan. Mike Ward is the executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council.

MIKE WARD:  Well I think it’s a good path forward. It’s a flexible approach, which is what we were kind of hoping for, and that is to allow technology to change, advance and grow. There’s no oil and gas drilling in that region now, but we’d hate to see it locked up entirely for 15 years.

At which point, he says, new drilling technology may renew interest in what lies beneath the forest.

WARD: Maybe there’s more there than they thought. Certainly that’s what happened in North Dakota, with the Bakken Shale. 10 years ago nobody would have guessed there’s as much as what there is there now, but new technology kind of opened that up.

That may sound like good news for some people. And for those like Sandum and everyone else pleased by the decision to mostly keep fracking out of the George Washington, it’s a reason to stay vigilant.

SANDUM: The shale will always be in the ground, and so it will always be something that has the potential to be a new issue again.

Andrew Jenner is a freelance reporter based in Harrisonburg. After working as a journalist in the Shenandoah Valley for a decade, he spent three years living and reporting in Brazil, returning to Harrisonburg in the summer of 2018. Andrew has reported for TheAtlantic.com, The Washington Post, Deutsche Welle, Discover, Modern Farmer, and many others. He is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, has a MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Goucher College, and almost made it onto Jeopardy! a few years ago.