Responding to serious concerns raised by SELC and many others, the U.S. Forest Service has proposed prohibiting horizontal drilling on any federal lands leased in the future for oil or gas production in Virginia’s George Washington National Forest. SELC applauds this move, which is included in a draft long-range management plan for the forest released in May 2011.
The proposed ban on horizontal drilling would curb high-volume hydraulic fracturing—or “fracking”—to extract natural gas from shale deposits under the forest and would help protect streams and aquifers that provide drinking water for more than 260,000 people in and around the Shenandoah Valley.
Shaping the Forest Management Plan. The proposed horizontal drilling ban is the result of a draft environmental study conducted in conjunction with the draft revised management plan. As the Forest Service developed the draft plan over the past three years, SELC submitted several rounds of extensive recommendations for improving it, including a call to keep fracking in check. Three counties and two cities in the Shenandoah Valley—as well as many local citizens and other conservation groups—made similar requests, voicing concerns about risks to water quality, recreation, wildlife habitat, and other resources.
Risks to the Forest Remain. We are now analyzing the plan to make sure other resource-extraction techniques are not allowed to endanger sensitive natural assets. For example, the draft plan proposes to permit vertical drilling for oil and gas almost anywhere in the national forest. Vertical wells are often fracked, too, and can have adverse impacts similar to horizontal wells, although usually to a lesser degree. SELC is urging the Forest Service to conduct a more thorough study of the effects of vertical drilling before making a decision. At a minimum, the agency should prohibit gas leasing and drilling in watersheds supplying local drinking water; other priority watersheds and special biological areas identified by the Forest Service; and other places valued for their natural, scenic, and recreational treasures.
Make Your Voice Heard. The draft plan and environmental study are currently available for public comment. Comments must be submitted by September 1 via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to George Washington Plan Revision, George Washington & Jefferson National Forests, 5162 Valleypointe Parkway, Roanoke, VA 24019. More information and the draft documents are available on the Forest Service website.