The federal government will allow a controversial form of energy drilling called fracking in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia, but it will sharply cut the amount of land on which fracking could occur.
The much-anticipated decision represents, in effect, a compromise between people who feared fracking would harm the 1.1 million-acre forest and industry representatives who said the drilling can be done safely.
“This is a decision about where it’s appropriate to do oil and gas,” said Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for natural resources and environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It’s not a decision about how you do it.”
The USDA includes the U.S. Forest Service, which runs the George Washington in west-central Virginia. About 10 percent of the forest lies in West Virginia. It’s a place where people hike, hunt and watch birds and where loggers cut trees, among other uses.
Things to know about plan for national forest
Some things to know about the final management plan for the George Washington National Forest:
Streams in the forest lead to rivers that supply drinking water for more than 4 million people, including residents in the Richmond and Washington regions.
The decision to allow fracking lies within a new management plan that will guide activities in the forest for the next 10 to 15 years. The plan is being released today.
Before today, about 995,000 acres in the forest were available for drilling. Under the plan, that shrinks to 177,000 acres.
Those 177,000 acres cover 10,000 that are under lease for drilling and 167,000 where private interests own the underground mineral rights, even though the Forest Service owns the trees and other resources above the ground.
That split ownership stems from cases years ago in which the federal government acquired land for the forest but some sellers wanted to retain their mineral rights.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, typically involves injecting water, sand and chemicals underground at high pressure to break up rocks that harbor gas or oil.
Critics say the process can pollute streams and underground water. In the national forest, they say, it would also conflict with the scenery and pastoral atmosphere. Opponents of fracking in the George Washington included Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Supporters say fracking is a safe method that, combined with horizontal drilling, has made once-hard-to-reach gas reserves accessible.
A draft of the forest plan in 2011 would have, in effect, banned fracking, but that option was reinstated after federal officials heard from industry representatives and others.
The George Washington lies on the southeastern fringe of the Marcellus Shale, a region rich in underground natural gas. But federal officials said that part of the shale region that lies in the George Washington is not particularly productive, and while some companies have acquired drilling rights, no one has drilled.
“Nothing has ever come together on the GW for gas,” said Ken Landraf, the forest’s planning officer.
The plan for the George Washington also calls for expanding natural buffers along streams to reduce pollution, increasing the area suitable for logging, adding two wilderness areas, and creating a 90,000-acre national scenic area on Shenandoah Mountain in Rockingham and Augusta counties.
The latter two actions require congressional action. Wilderness areas and scenic areas get extra protections.