Kim Sandum is driving on a one-lane gravel road inside the George Washington National Forest, the largest federally protected forest on the East Coast. She points to a trout stream gurgling over rocks and shallows not 20 feet from her rolling minivan.
“Can you imagine all those big trucks operating in close quarters like this?” she asks, shaking her head. “Earth-moving equipment everywhere, water lines stretched out on the ground. Workers actually drilling in here! I mean, there’s no way.”
Sandum, executive director of the Community Alliance for Preservation in Rockingham County, has seen crews horizontally drilling for natural gas before, using a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It was not a pretty scene, she said.
“It’s like the sudden industrialization of a rural area,” Sandum recalled of her trip to a drill site in a small town in nearby West Virginia. “It was a mess. I didn’t meet anyone there who was happy that drilling was going on.”
Sandum is among a chorus of Shenandoah Valley residents, farmers, local officials, environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts who support a proposal from the U.S. Forest Service to ban horizontal drilling and modern-day fracking on the nearly 1 million acres of the George Washington forest, located mostly in Virginia but also touching West Virginia.
The forest service recommended the move two years ago in what officials thought would be a routine updating of its 15-year management plan.
Instead, their draft stirred oil and gas companies to try to block the ban, has deepened a national debate about domestic energy production on public lands, and has exposed Virginians to the controversy surrounding fracking.
A final plan is expected to be released by the end of the month.
If enacted, it would be the first drilling ban in the U.S. government’s vast inventory of woodlands, coming at a time when President Barack Obama has expressed support for an “all of the above” energy policy that encourages gas drilling, including more of it on public lands.
While the ban focuses on horizontal drilling, it also effectively would bar modern fracking, a method in which large quantities of pressurized water, sand and fluids – including some toxic materials, such as hydrochloric acid – are injected into mining wells to break up stubborn rocks and allow natural gas to escape for harvesting.
This new type of “hydro-fracking” requires hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per well. It has proved successful in tapping previously inaccessible gas deposits in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, New York and other states. But its environmental and social impacts have been highly contentious and still are being sorted out.
Among environmental groups, fracking has become a new bogeyman. Activists in several European countries are demanding an end to the practice altogether, and American conservationists warn of drinking water contamination, the release of greenhouse gases such as methane, spills of polluted groundwater, and shattered landscapes.
In the George Washington forest, opponents say that drinking water for more than 247,000 residents in nearby towns and counties would be at risk, as well as for millions of others in metro areas farther downstream, such as Richmond and Washington. Those freshwater streams and reservoirs all drain into the James River and Potomac River watersheds, which later empty into the Chesapeake Bay.
In the eastern United States, fracking occurs mostly in a huge saucer-shaped geological feature known as the Marcellus Shale. This underground layer cake of stone and mineral brushes the western edges of Virginia on a line roughly defined by Interstate 81.
The Virginia piece is considered thinner and less productive than in other states – and does not come close to the sandy, watery geology beneath Hampton Roads.
Being on the outer rim, wells do not require as much pressurized water to prime and often utilize nitrogen instead of toxic fluids, but their strike-it-rich success is limited, said George Kozera, president of the Virginia Oil and Gas Association, a trade group.
“Not many people are going to drill on the edge when you can drill in the middle” of the Marcellus Shale, in states such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania, Kozera said.
Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has pledged to make Virginia “the energy capital of the East Coast,” has criticized the proposed drilling ban, saying it would quash jobs and curtail a national goal of energy independence.
McDonnell also is taking issue with the forest management plan for setting aside scant places for wind energy – only about 30,000 acres after site restrictions are factored in. As with gas wells, the governor said, windmills also would not likely be developed in the forest.
At least one wind project has been shelved so far; it called for 130 turbines atop a scenic mountain ridge at the northern entrance to the Shenandoah Valley.
“Specifically, the restrictions on wind energy and natural gas development are unsupported in facts, science or environmental protection requirements,” the Republican governor wrote in a letter to the forest service.
State agencies, including the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, have said the ban would be “overly restrictive” and that drilling can be done safely by companies adhering to existing state regulations.
They note that conventional wells that go straight into the ground – as opposed to horizontal wells that go down and then curve and run along gas seams for as long as a mile – have been plumbed for decades in southwest Virginia without incident. Some of those wells are found in the Jefferson National Forest and have been primed with an older but similar form of fracking dating to the 1940s.
Oil and gas interests are urging defeat or modification of the proposed ban, worried that it might set a precedent for other national forests and public settings. They point out the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a comprehensive study of fracking and water quality, and that no ban should be considered until the research is completed, estimated for next year.
The ban is “unjustified and inconsistent with the current administration’s efforts to increase U.S. energy security and control emissions of greenhouse gases,” wrote Halliburton, the Texas-based energy giant, in a letter to the forest service.
Ken Landgraf, a planning officer for the Washington and Jefferson national forests, has heard the arguments and lobbying for years now. His office in a bland commercial park near Roanoke Regional Airport is full of maps, papers, files and chairs for impromptu meetings.
He can trace the origins of the drilling ban to a 2010 meeting in Rockingham County, where another Texas company had quietly leased land near homes in the town of Bergton and was seeking county approval for an exploratory well.
County officials knew little of the project, and residents grew anxious at the prospect of drilling with so few details on the table. With oil and gas prices high, and with energy companies scouting for more well sites along the Marcellus Shale, Landgraf knew it would be wise to address drilling in the updated management plan.
“I can say we have had no problems with the conventional wells in the Jefferson (forest), but what we’re talking about here are not conventional wells,” he said. “We saw a need to get ahead of this, to get something on paper specific to our local circumstances.”
He recalled how during the energy crisis of the 1970s, almost the entire forest was quickly leased by oil and gas speculators. A few wells were sunk, but after some poor test results, fears of gas fields sprouting up next to trout streams never materialized. After 10 years, the leases lapsed, and the investors went home.
Ban advocates are aware of this poor-performing past but say the stakes are too high not to take action. Eleven cities and counties near the forest have spoken out against fracking, worried about threats to water resources, clean streams and rural character.
“It’s just not an appropriate use of a national forest,” said Lynn Cameron, co-chair of Friends of Shenandoah Mountain, a conservation group. “There are plenty of other places to go and drill. Why come in and ruin the success we’ve had here for the past century?”
Landgraf said the forest service has spent much of the past two years responding to the more than 53,000 public comments about the proposed ban. Mostly, he said, the service has tried to determine whether horizontal drilling and its related fracking could be done in areas without harming the environment and recreational opportunities within the forest.
No other national forest has drilling restrictions, and most do not control the mineral rights to what lies in the ground; those are mostly left to private lease buyers. About 12,000 acres in the George Washington forest are currently under lease to oil and gas companies, with about 80 percent controlled by R&R Royalty Ltd., a Texas firm. Phone calls to R&R offices in Corpus Christi, Texas, were not returned.
In the heart of fracking and drilling country on the East Coast, in Pennsylvania, the Allegheny National Forest has achieved a kind of detente with drill operators and state regulators, said Kathy Mohney, a public affairs specialist for the forest.
Mohney said she is unaware of any chronic water contamination within the forest from a surge in drilling activity in recent years, but added, “there’s always some impact. We’re trying to coexist here, and a lot of it comes down to the relationships you develop with the operators, the state and environmental groups.”
There has been litigation and one criminal spill, Mohney recalled, in which an angry former employee of an energy company intentionally dumped wastes into a forest waterway.
“It’s a challenge,” she said. “We do the best we can.”
Sarah Francisco has been closely watching the forest debate as an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville. She said there is interest in fracking in a national forest in Alabama and on private property in North Carolina in the central part of the state around Durham and Winston-Salem.
Francisco worries about many potential impacts to the Washington national forest. During an interview at her downtown office, she mentions several: methane gas oozing into drinking water supplies; the handling of wastewater known as “flowback,” which bubbles to the surface during drilling; and about how operators would store such wastes in open pits and then permanently get rid of them.
The flowback often is rich in salts and can contain naturally occurring radioactive components, as well as remnant fracking fluids. It is supposed to be handled by a certified disposal facility, though for years, the material was trucked in other states to sewage treatment plants lacking the technology to process it effectively.
Francisco hopes the George Washington plan encourages other national forests to consider drilling limits and stirs conservationists to start asking questions.
Drilling and fracking “really have not been part of the local economies around these forests,” she said. “There’s no existing infrastructure for it, the impacts could be huge and there’s not a lot of public support for it. That doesn’t sound like a recipe for success to me.”
Scott Harper, 757-446-2340, firstname.lastname@example.org