In one of the most closely-watched decisions the Obama Administration has made over how to balance conservation and energy development in a national forest, the U.S. Forest Service announced on Tuesday it will not allow new oil and gas leasing and drilling in the 1.1 million-acre George Washington National Forest in Virginia.
The decision protects the majority of Forest against industrial development in areas that supply drinking water supply to 4.5 million residents of Washington D.C., Richmond, VA, and surrounding areas. Tuesday’s final plan states that, “with the exception of existing leases, no lands are available for federal oil and gas drilling.”
“The Forest Service is striking a balance by recognizing that, despite the growing pressures of the drilling boom, the George Washington National Forest is too special to be auctioned off for development,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “The George Washington National Forest supplies drinking water for millions of Americans and the outdoor recreation opportunities that make the Shenandoah Valley and surrounding areas such an attractive place to live and work.”
Despite intense pressure from the oil and gas industry, the Forest Service’s final forest plan restricts drilling in the majority of the National Forest, except for 10,000 acres already leased for oil and gas drilling and about 167,000 acres with existing mineral rights.
“We think the decision shows the Forest Service listened to the local community,” the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Sarah Francisco told the AP. “The vast majority of the forest is protected in this decision.”
Sitting at the headwaters of the Potomac, Shenandoah, and James Rivers, the George Washington National Forest contains some of the largest areas of undeveloped public lands east of the Mississippi. As Jessica Goad reported for Climate Progress in October, 2013:
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.
The Forest Service received over 50,000 comments in support of a 2011 draft plan that proposed a ban on all horizontal drilling and the associated hydraulic fracturing in the Forest.
The final forest plan released Tuesday includes differences from the Forest Service’s draft plan for the area. The draft plan, for example, would have banned the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing — or ‘fracking’ — techniques in the national forest, a provision that the oil and gas industry strongly opposed. Industry groups argued this provision would set a precedent for prohibiting fracking techniques in other national forests.
Robert Bonnie, U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment, said, “from a policy perspective, the Forest Service allows fracking on forest lands throughout the country. We didn’t want to make a policy decision or change policy related to fracking. This decision is about where it’s appropriate to do oil and gas leasing.”
Although it doesn’t specifically prohibit fracking, the final forest plan for the George Washington National Forest now prohibits any new leasing of the national forest for any kind of oil and gas drilling activity, including hydraulic fracturing.