GEORGE WASHINGTON NATIONAL FOREST, VIRGINA — Standing at the top of the Staunton Dam in Virginia’s million-acre George Washington National Forest, Nancy Sorrells describes herself as the “fourth generation not to be born here, but to wind up here.” Looking out at the sun pouring through the reds and rusts of oaks and maples that have just begun to turn, next to clumps of light purple asters rocking in the balmy breeze, it’s easy to see why she says “there are beautiful places in the world, but this forest is one of the most beautiful.”
But underneath its postcard views and undeveloped backcountry sits a natural gas deposit that is now believed to underlie approximately half of the national forest. An extension of the Marcellus Shale, which has fueled a massive gas boom in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, the George Washington’s gas reserves are the subject of a contentious debate about whether there should be limits on where the fossil fuel industry is allowed to drill. This debate will come to a head in the coming weeks, as the U.S. Forest Service decides whether or not to allow horizontal drilling (and the accompanying hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’) within the forest’s boundaries. With drilling comes traffic and noise, the threat of air and water pollution, and enduring changes to nearby communities and their way of life.
The George Washington contains some of the largest undeveloped, roadless expanses of public lands east of the Mississippi. It is also home to the headwaters of the mid-Atlantic region’s three most significant rivers: the Potomac, the Shenandoah, and the James. These rivers supply water to many of the nine million people who live in the counties that are 75 miles or less from the forest boundary, as well as to both Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia (each less than three hours away).
The Staunton Dam itself provides drinking water to the city of Staunton, but the water within it will eventually flow into the Potomac River and to Washington, D.C. “This national forest,” Sorrells says, “was created for water quality protection.”
She should know. As a member of the Augusta County Service Authority, the county commission that provides water and sewer services to its residents, Sorrells is responsible for ensuring a safe water supply. Also a historian, she describes the expensive and time-consuming process that the city of Staunton went through in the 1920s to protect its drinking water for the next 100 years. In the end, city planners determined that building a dam in the national forest was the safest possibility. A sign at the dam even reads that “one of the most important products of the National Forests is water for human needs.”
“Isn’t it ironic,” Sorrells notes with a twinge of sadness, “that Staunton chose to get water from the forest because it’s protected from development. And yet 90 years later, the biggest threat to water is from the national forest — fracking and development.”
CREDIT: Jessica Goad
Drilling a national forest
As the specter of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing intensifies, the George Washington National Forest has become the setting for a scene most often played out in the American West — a battle over energy extraction on public lands, and the impacts that such development has on recreation, rural communities, and the increasingly-valued recreation economy.
Forest Service officials are finalizing their “forest plan” for the area, which enumerates management priorities for the next 10 to 15 years. In the draft plan that was released in 2011, all horizontal drilling in the forest was banned, and the planners explained that:
This restriction is based on concerns about the impacts of extensive hydraulic fracturing associated with horizontal drilling on water quality, the unknown potential for developing the Marcellus shale formation on the GWNF, and the limited experience with horizontal drilling in the immediate vicinity of the GWNF.
Horizontal drilling — a process by which an oil or natural gas well is drilled downwards and then extended perpendicularly up to several miles further— is most often paired with hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ where a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals are injected into a well to stimulate the flow of oil or gas. Hydraulic fracturing in particular has generated significant controversy because of the toxic chemicals used, the large amounts of water need to stimulate the extraction of gas, and the many issues raised with the disposal of contaminated water.
The George Washington National Forest will be releasing the final version of this planning document in the next few weeks. But local residents worry that pressure from the oil and gas industry will cause Forest Service officials to back away from the ban on horizontal drilling that was proposed in 2011.
The oil and gas lobby weighs in
Despite the fact that, as Sorrells puts it, “it’s your land and the water that comes out of that forest is your water,” a number of the most powerful players in the oil and gas industry lobby have inserted themselves into the revision of the forest plan. For example, the American Petroleum Institute said in its public comments that the Forest Service’s ban on horizontal drilling was “plainly unsupported and absurd.” America’s Natural Gas Association stated that natural gas “can be developed in an environmentally responsible manner.” And in Congressional testimony, the Independent Petroleum Producers of America attempted to leverage one of its leading political arguments, stating that “this proposed plan presents a far larger issue — the reluctance of the current Administration to support the development of the full spectrum of American resources.”
Other energy companies and groups that have criticized the Forest Service’s proposed ban on drilling include Chesapeake Energy, ConocoPhillips, Halliburton, Superior Well Services, the Virginia Oil and Gas Association, XTO, and Consol Energy, the company whose relationship with Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate and former state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has raised the eyebrows of ethics watchdogs.
Despite intense public attention from the oil and gas industry on the George Washington, the actual reserves of natural gas under the forest are largely undetermined. As Thomas Biggs, a professor at the University of Virginia, put it, “There’s no real way to tell from the surface. You do your homework the best you can, but they have drilled many, many a dry hole.” Additionally, while the draft forest plan would ban horizontal drilling, vertical drilling on over 900,000 acres of national forest would still be allowed (though this technology is generally considered less effective and economically viable than horizontal drilling).
So why is the oil and gas industry fighting so hard for such uncertain gains? According to Lee Fuller of IPAA, it’s about the precedent of the decision. He told Bloomberg that “if you would adopt this premise as a matter of policy across the country, it would take significant opportunities off the table.” Thus, the reason the industry has taken up the mantle of this forest plan in particular is not because of the amount of money companies could make, but instead because of the seemingly precedent-setting nature of the decision.
CREDIT: Jessica Goad
Threatening a treasured place
The oil and gas industry’s position rankles many residents of the Shenandoah Valley, who counter that their already-established tourism and recreation economy is worth more than the dim prospect of natural gas development in the future. In fact, the Shenandoah Valley and Harrisonburg, its largest city, are quickly becoming an extremely important outdoor recreation hub. The Outdoor Industry Association estimates that $13.6 billion in consumer spending is generated by outdoor recreation in Virginia every year, making it a critical part of the state’s economy.
This growing recreation scene has drawn people like Kyle Lawrence, who works at the Shenandoah Bicycle Company in Harrisonburg. He says with a smile that the city is “the self-proclaimed biking capital of Virginia,” and points out that Harrisonburg and Salt Lake City are the only two cities in America to be certified by both the League of American Bicyclists and the International Mountain Biking Association as bike-friendly cities.
According to Lawrence, natural gas drilling could severely impact recreational uses of the forest. “If you have three roadless areas that are unfragmented, you don’t want to look down and see gas wells.” With more than one million recreational users visiting the George Washington every year, “the future of the forest,” says Lawrence, “is recreation.”
The economic prospects of recreation and tourism in the Shenandoah Valley have also drawn Colby and Brian Trow, who operate Harrisonburg’s Mossy Creek Fly Fishing, the largest freshwater fishing guide service in Virginia. The two came to the city more than ten years ago to study at James Madison University and have been here ever since.
The fact that their phone rings constantly shows how successful their business is in attracting potential customers eager to set up trips into the nearby mountains of the George Washington National Forest. Many of these anglers are in search of wild, native brook trout, the state fish of Virginia. “Brook trout live in mostly pristine, clean, clear mountain streams,” Trow explains, and the GW is home to some of the best brook trout streams in the east.
But, a mapping study provided by the fishing advocacy organization Trout Unlimited determined that 79 percent of Marcellus Shale acres in the George Washington National Forest occur in brook trout watersheds. Trow worries about the impacts on sensitive brook trout, and relatedly, his small business. “The concern for me is these fragile little ecosystems. Even simple things like cutting a road can dissect a population of fish,” he explained. “It only takes one minor slip-up and they’ve devastated an area.”
CREDIT: Jessica Goad
A major water supply at risk
Nancy Sorrells and Colby Trow aren’t the only ones concerned about the impacts of drilling on the water flowing from the George Washington National Forest. No less than four local city governments, six local counties, the Fairfax County Water Authority, and the Army Corps of Engineers’ Washington Aqueduct (which supplies Washington, D.C.’s water) have expressed their concerns about drilling and fracking in the forest.
This is because even without a major accident or well blowout, normal drilling operations would have major impacts on the forest and its resources. As the Shenandoah Riverkeeper wrote in its public comments on the draft forest plan:
If gas is developed and there are no accidents, the impacts will still be tremendous due to water withdrawals, sediment pollution, noise pollution, air pollution, surface disturbance leading to loss of use and enjoyment of the forest by private citizens and loss of wildlife abundance and diversity in direct conflict with all public uses of the forest.
Trow puts into words what these local governments and water providers know for certain, that “clean water is going to be more valuable than gold in the future.”
The path ahead
While the oil and gas industry argues that a ban on horizontal drilling in the George Washington National Forest sets a national precedent (an assertion whose veracity is contested), Sorrells and others say that there’s another precedent at play and that’s the Forest Service policy for making decisions regarding individual forests.
They note that the agency’s policy has thus far been to look at specific tracts of land and make planning decisions on a case-by-case basis. If a ban on drilling fits into that record of place-based decision-making, then it is not as precedent-setting as the industry alleges.
Moreover, if the Forest Service were to open the area to horizontal drilling it would dismiss the wishes of the local counties, cities and towns, water authorities, and the public and “to ignore that policy would [also] be a precedent and not a good one,” says Sorrells.
Oil and gas drilling on national forests is not unheard of, and indeed the current oil and gas production on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service is sizable — in 2010, 16.7 million barrels of oil and 194 million cubic feet of natural gas were produced from these areas.
Nevertheless, advocates argue that the George Washington National Forest is simply too special to drill and that there is far too much at stake, from recreation jobs to the agriculture industry that depends on clean water and even to the Chesapeake Bay, the eventual destination of the rivers that flow from the forest.
Additionally, many allege that allowing horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the area would not reflect the Obama administration’s “new direction and vision” for America’s national forests, announced by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in 2009 when he stated “the clean water that emerges is made possible in large part by stewardship of our rural lands, and of our forests in particular.”
For the residents of the Shenandoah Valley, the question becomes: will the Forest Service stand with the millions of people who love and depend on the resources provided by the national forest and keep the it free from horizontal drilling, or will the complaints of the national oil and gas lobby win the day?
Before turning to walk back down to the car from the top of the Staunton Dam, Nancy Sorrells takes in the view — from small white orchids at her feet up to the ridge lines where the puffy clouds billow outwards. She has one message for anyone considering opening the George Washington National Forest, her favorite piece of paradise, to drilling and fracking. “Water is the foundation for everything,” she said. “Why would we sacrifice that?”