Richmond Times-Dispatch: Va. Residents Back Horizontal Drilling Ban in National Forest
April 24, 2012 by Associated Press
Virginians who commented on a new management plan for the George Washington National Forest support a proposed ban on a much-criticized type of natural gas drilling in the forest's 1 million acres, an analysis of more than 53,000 public submissions concludes.
The proposed ban involves horizontal drilling, or hydraulic fracturing, which pumps chemicals, sand and water into shale to separate natural gas from rock. Critics say the process threatens groundwater supplies and air quality.
The analysis of the public comments was conducted by the Shenandoah Valley Network and the Land, Air, Water Stewardship Action Group, both opponents of the drilling technique often called “fracking.” Of the 6,700 comments received from Virginia residents, 70 percent supported the ban, their analysis found.
Approximately half of the George Washington National Forest sits atop the Marcellus shale formation, which contains a vast deposit of natural gas running from upstate New York to the Virginias. The formation's richest deposits are generally believed to be in states such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania, rather than in states on the fringes, including Virginia.
Still, localities that rely heavily on farming or tourism are hopeful of getting in front of any drilling proposals in Virginia to protect their water supplies. More than one-quarter-of-a-million people in the Shenandoah Valley get their drinking water from sources that originate within the George Washington National Forest.
Eleven Virginia localities are among those supporting the ban or limits on horizontal drilling within the forest. They include the counties of Shenandoah, Rockingham, Rockbridge, Augusta, Boutetourt and Bath.
Many residents who commented on the proposed ban mentioned water quality concerns, said Kate Wofford, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Network.
“In the valley, we don't have a long history of oil and gas development like some of those communities in Pennsylvania, so I think we can afford to be a little more skeptical,” Wofford said Monday. “The industrial nature of drilling is incompatible with farming and tourism.”
Of the 53,000 public comments from around the nation received by the U.S. Forest Service, 95 percent support the ban, she said.
“The U.S. Forest Service did the right thing when it addressed local concerns and proposed the ban on gas drilling,” Susan Plank of the Water Stewardship Action group said in a statement. “These public lands provide our drinking water, forest products and hiking, hunting and fishing opportunities.”
An industry group, The American Petroleum Institute, has said hydraulic fracturing can be done safely.
In its own filing, the state Department of Environmental Quality submitted a lengthy review of the park's draft management plan reflecting the expertise of many state agencies, including game and inland fisheries, forestry and conservation and recreation. It called the proposed horizontal drilling ban “overly restrictive.”
The report states that Virginia's portion of the shale formation is not as thick as those in other areas of the Marcellus deposit and would not require as much liquids to fracture the rock. It also said the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy would closely monitor any horizontal drilling.
The state report also cautioned that a ban on horizontal drilling could lead to more conventional wells, if high future prices stirred more interest in natural gas deposits under forest. The result, the state said “‘'would be a much greater disturbance of surface acreage” in the forest.
The proposed ban is one element of a plan to guide the forest's use over the next 15 years. The national forest covers 960,000 acres in Virginia, with just over 100,000 acres in West Virginia.
The final plan was expected this spring but has been pushed back to July, in part because of discussions over the proposed ban.
Ken Landgraf, planning staff officer at the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, said part of that discussion involves methods to minimize the impact of horizontal drilling on water quality.
“We're evaluating that very carefully to see if we can put together a package of mitigation factors that would allow us to make portions of the forest available,” he said.
The Daily News Record of Harrisonburg first report on the analysis of comments to the Forest Service.
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