RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Environmental groups are fearful that a new blueprint for the 1.1-million-acre George Washington National Forest will open the largest federally protected forest in the East to a form of natural gas drilling that has spawned its own environmental movement.
Years in the making, the much-anticipated plan outlines the management of the forest, from timber harvests to mineral resources to controlled burns. It is expected to be released in late August or early September and guide the forest's use for the next 10 to 15 years.
A 2011 draft of the plan proposed a ban on horizontal drilling for natural gas using hydraulic fracturing to pry the resource from a layer cake of shale. It would be the first outright ban on so-called fracking in a national park, and conventional and horizontal fracking is occurring is some national forests.
The proposal, however, was met with an outcry from energy industry heavyweights such as Halliburton Energy Services Inc. and the American Petroleum Institute. They argued the drilling poses no risk to groundwater, contrary to what critics say, and is consistent with the Obama administration's energy objectives.
The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, which would have a regulatory oversight with federal regulators, labeled the proposed ban "overly restrictive" and Gov. Bob McDonnell echoed those sentiments.
The response stirred a who's who of environmental groups and local officials who are concerned that the U.S. Forest Service will be swayed by their arguments and abandon the proposed ban on fracking, which uses water and a chemical stew to extract the natural gas from shale. The Forest Service says a final decision on the drilling ban has not been made.
Besides fears that drilling and its waste would foul pristine mountain streams that provide drinking water to 250,000 people in the Shenandoah Valley, opponents argue that the trucks, wells and other infrastructure that would come with gas drilling are incompatible with the forest's primary attractions of hiking, fishing, hunting, camping, tourism and its abundant wildlife.
The forest, which includes a section of the Appalachian Trail, runs from northwest Virginia along the western tier of the state. About 100,000 acres reach into West Virginia.
"The real issue at hand here is whether or not the George Washington National Forest is an appropriate place for industrial-scale gas development," said Kate Wofford, director of the Shenandoah Valley Network. "In my mind, the answer is perfectly clear: no, it isn't appropriate."
Industry representatives maintain the development of the nation's rich natural gas deposits is a big step toward energy independence and that the draft plan also raised the prospect of developing wind power in the park.
"Windmills are OK but natural gas drilling isn't?" asked Greg Kozera, president of the Virginia Oil and Gas Association. "I have a problem with that."
Kozera contends drilling would be no more intrusive than the addition of windmills and that the blades on towering turbines would take a toll on birds and bats. Some environmental groups have voiced similar concerns.
"If it's a wilderness, I don't want to hear about windmills in the middle of the George Washington National Forest," Kozera said.
What makes the forest enticing to energy companies is the vast Marcellus Shale formation. Its eastern edge underlies about one half of the forest. The gas formation, which encompasses an area from upstate New York south to the Virginias, has sparked a modern-day gold rush.
No drilling occurs in the forest now, although 12,000 acres are already leased to energy companies. U.S. Forest Service officials say they are mindful of other resources in the forest when they consider other uses, such as drilling.
"Part of our mission is to develop the mineral resources for the United States of America for the American people," said Ken Landgraff, a planning staff officer with the Forest Service. "The main mineral we have here is gas."
In making the case against a drilling ban, the state DMME wrote to the Forest Service: "To date, there have been no known instances of surface water or groundwater degradation from hydraulic fracturing in the state."
That's a view shared by regulators in many states with new drilling activity. In his address on climate change last week, President Barack Obama praised what he called "cleaner-burning natural gas," which he said can also help reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.
Opponents of the George Washington drilling are not arguing their case solely on the highly contentious science of fracking but instead on the activities that would lead to drilling.
Sarah Francisco, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said drilling would bring with it all the trappings of "a major industrial-type activity, from the footprint of the well pads themselves, the access roads, the pipelines and the other infrastructure that comes with it."
"We go to the national forest to
get out into the woods and to experience peace and solitude," she said. "That's our message to the Forest Service: the George Washington National Forest is so important and it's not the right place to drill, so don't open the door."
The forest attracts more than 1 million visitors annually. It is also home to the headwaters of the James and Potomac rivers, which feed into the Chesapeake Bay. The estuary is amid a multi-billion dollar, multi-state restoration directed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The park is also surrounded by some of Virginia's prime agricultural land.
James Madison University geology professor Scott Eaton said if drilling was to occur, a tracking system should be put in place to detect any contaminants in wells.
"You just have to have some baseline data before the fracking starts," he said. "You go to these wells, you test the water, you look for any pre-existing hydrocarbons, because this stuff does naturally leak out through thousands of years through the oil- and gas-bearing rock."
If the final forest plan allows drilling, opponents are expected to appeal the decision.
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