Fracking in national forests

Allegheny National Forest (Photo by Mandana/flickr)

The U.S. Forest Service is considering allowing fracking for natural gas in Virginia's George Washington National Forest. The headwaters of the Potomac River tunnel through the forest and provide drinking water for about four million people.

A Los Angeles Times article highlights the broad opposition the idea is getting because of the potential risk to a water supply that supports not only residents of two states, but the nation's capitol.

All across the country, fracking's risks and rewards have splintered communities. But the potential risk to George Washington National Forest's water has drawn widespread opposition, including from most of the towns and counties nearby, members of Virginia's congressional delegation and Washington's mayor. The oil industry says any natural gas could be extracted with little harm to the national forest and its waters.

"The Potomac is our exclusive water source. We don't have anywhere else to go for our drinking water if there's a mistake or problem," said George Hawkins, general manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority. "And if there is, it would affect everyone at the [Environmental Protection Agency], every member of Congress."

The article said the U.S. Forest Service “is considering allowing George Washington to become the first national forest to permit high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.”

But that’s not entirely accurate. There have been several deep Marcellus Shale wells drilled in Pennsylvania’s 517,000-acre Allegheny National Forest. The forest is also home to thousands of conventional gas wells.

In Pennsylvania, surface and mineral rights are two separate things. The surface of the Allegheny National Forest is owned by the federal government, but most of the mineral rights are privately owned. This means that the federal government doesn’t have a say on drilling in the forest.

In the case of the George Washington National Forest, it would be the first time the U.S. Forest Service would allow the activity to take place in a national forest.

In September 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia issued a ruling that bitterly ended a battle by the U.S. Forest Service and several environmental groups. The Forest Service tried to ban new development of gas drilling in Allegheny National Forest.

The Court agreed with a lower court’s ruling that the Forest Service had no right to regulate drilling in Pennsylvania’s only national forest.