Nearly 2 million acres of natural splendor straddling Virginia and West… (Jared Soares/For The Washington…)
George Washington National Forest is more than just one of the largest expanses of pristine land in the East. It’s the leafy cradle of the Shenandoah, James and Potomac rivers, a source of drinking water for millions of people in greater Washington.
The forest — nearly 2 million acres of natural splendor straddling Virginia and West Virginia — might also hold another treasure: natural gas trapped under a deep layer of rock called the Marcellus Shale.
By the end of the month, the U.S. Forest Service is expected to decide whether to ban or allow the controversial method of drilling called hydraulic fracturing under the forest’s new, 15-year management plan. The decision will settle a raging dispute between conservationists and the oil and gas industry.
The oil and gas industry argues that it would be unfair for the government to “slam the door” on hydraulic fracturing in the forest for such a long period of time, and points out that natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal. Conservationists say the drilling method, also referred to as fracking, could contaminate water at its source. The process involves drilling a deep vertical well, then bending it horizontally so millions of gallons of water and toxic chemicals can be blasted into the earth to fracture shale and release gas.
The Forest Service proposed banning the practice two years ago, a move criticized by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) as overreach. But the proposed ban is backed by two agencies that provide drinking water to 4.5 million customers from the Potomac: the Army Corps of Engineers — which operates the Washington Aqueduct, from which the District, Arlington County and Falls Church withdraw water — and the Fairfax County Water Authority.
Thomas P. Jacobus, the aqueduct’s general manager, called the forest streams and rivers “a key resource,” and said in a letter to the Forest Service that anything that undermines agreements made by states to preserve the water quality of the Potomac “would be unwelcome. Safe water supply is essential to life.”
Assessing the stakes
One hundred species of fish and mussels live in the shallow waters of the Cowpasture and Jackson rivers, which gurgle in the forest along the Appalachian spine. There are also 70 types of amphibians and reptiles, 180 species of birds and 60 species of mammals. The list of all the trees, plants, fishing areas, hiking trails and campsites could fill a book.
The forest streams and rivers, called headwaters, form in the region’s highest elevations and flow down. They are the origin of the Potomac’s drinking water and provide the water that created the James and Shenandoah rivers.
The officer in charge of drafting the final management plan said he understands the stakes of allowing drilling with chemicals in one of the most pristine forests on the East Coast.
“If you had a pollutant anywhere in the watershed, it would be a concern,” said Ken Landgraf, planning staff officer for George Washington National Forest. “But in the headwaters, everyone would have to deal with that. Everybody’s going to see that further downstream in the watershed.”
Another concern is that, wastewater bubbles back to the surface during the process and must be stored in sealed containers that have been known to leak. Moreover, dozens of heavy trucks carry the mixture of water and chemicals to and from the drilling sites, sometimes spilling it.
More than 500 million cubic feet of gas is entombed in Marcellus Shale, which runs 95,000 square miles between Virginia and Ohio. Fracking wells in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio have generated significant profits, as well as major concerns over safety.
The government has allowed oil and gas drilling on other public lands, mostly in the West, where it owns large tracts of wilderness. Production from about 92,000 oil and gas wells on public lands makes up about 13 percent of the nation’s natural-gas production and 5 percent of its oil production, according to the Interior Department.
The Bureau of Land Management administers about 700 million acres of land holding mineral resources, and Chesapeake Energy and other natural gas explorers are pressing officials for wider access to them.
Landgraf said his team has pored over studies in New York, where hydraulic fracturing operations were numerous before a 2008 moratorium put them on hold. In addition, they have relied on records of safety incidents in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, along with BLM and U.S. Geological Survey records on fracking, to make their determination.