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BLM, Forest Service Set Record Straight: No Fracking Ban

Officials with the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Agriculture Department's U.S. Forest Service (USFS) disabused House lawmakers Friday of the notion that the two agencies have a broad ban on horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on federal and forest lands.

"To begin, I want to be clear the U.S. Forest Service has no policy, nor do we have any plans to develop, any policy to ban horizontal drilling and the associated hydraulic fracturing," USFS Deputy Chief Joel Holtrop said during a joint oversight hearing of subcommittees of the House Natural Resources Committee and Agriculture Committee, which was called to review the non-existent ban. "There is no BLM ban on direction drilling" either on public lands, BLM Director Bob Abbey told House lawmakers.

"There are no Forest Service discussions or efforts under way to develop a national policy to ban horizontal drilling. On the contrary, the administration believes that the recent technological advances that have allowed industry to access abundant reserves of natural gas, particularly from shale formations, provide enormous potential benefits to the country, as long as it is done in a way that protects the public health and environment," Holtrop said.

He acknowledged that a preferred option proposed for drilling in the George Washington Natural Forest in northern Virginia and West Virginia would prohibit fracking in certain areas of the forest. The draft proposal, which also includes several alternatives that would allow horizontal drilling, is out for public comment.

"This plan is place-specific based on the particular circumstances of the George Washington National Forest and does not represent a broader policy with respect to hydraulic fracturing," Holtrop said.

Maureen Matsen, Virginia's senior advisor on energy, joined industry representatives in urging the Forest Service not to consider restrictions on fracking in the George Washington Natural Forest.

"We've seen increased interest in the use of hydraulic fracturing techniques...The BLM is proactively engaging the public, states and industry on this issue," Abbey said. He noted that the agency in April held a series of regional public forums on fracking, with more than 600 members of the public participating.

Interior believes that conventional energy resources from BLM-managed lands will continue to play a critical role in meeting the nation's energy needs, according to Abbey. In fiscal year (FY) 2010, the latest year for which production figures are available, he estimated that more than 114 million bbl of oil and nearly 3 Tcf of gas were produced from BLM-managed lands, resulting in more than $2.5 billion in royalties for the federal government.

He said BLM has received more than 2,600 applications for permits to drill so far this year, and it has processed more than 2,800 permits to drill on federal and Indian lands. As of June 1, Abbey said the oil and gas industry has failed to make use of 7,100 BLM-approved permits.

"The current oil and gas production on national forest system lands is sizable," Holtrop said. He estimated that 16.7 million bbl of oil and 194 MMcf of natural gas was produced on forest lands in FY 2010, resulting in an estimated $361 million in payments to Treasury.

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