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DC Council Opposes George Washington National Forest Fracking

The Council of the District of Columbia has approved a resolution expressing "the sense of the Council that the United States Forest Service should prohibit horizontal hydraulic fracturing [fracking] in the George Washington National Forest [GWNF] to protect regional water quality and supply."

The DC Council has no power to prohibit fracking through its resolution -- the GWNF is located outside of the District's borders, in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. But it joins a growing list of entities that oppose fracking in the forest because of concerns about water supplies that can be traced from the Potomac River to its headwaters in the GWNF.

The Washington Aqueduct, DC Water, Fairfax County Water Authority, DC Mayor Vincent Gray and both of Virginia's Senators have also expressed their opposition to fracking and horizontal drilling in the 1.1 million-acre GWNF, according to the resolution. Several jurisdictions nearer the GWNF also support a prohibition on fracking and drilling.

The Council's vote came as the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) continues work on an update of a management plan for the GWNF. A draft management plan released in May 2011 would allow gas leasing on one million acres but prohibit horizontal drilling on all federal leases (see Daily GPI, May 23, 2011). The plan proposes new rules for the next 15 years for the George Washington Forest, which, with the connecting 700,000-acre Jefferson National Forest, makes up one of the largest areas of public land in the eastern United States. The GWNF land mass, which includes portions of the Marcellus Shale, runs north-south with most of the forest lying on the Virginia side of the Virginia-West Virginia border.

The plan, which was originally scheduled to be finished last fall, is expected to be implemented this month, according to a timeline on the USFS website. But USFS planner Karen Overcash said the atypical plan may take even longer to complete. "We don't have a date yet for the release. It's still in flux and we don't know anything definite yet," Overcash told NGI.

"The issue related to gas leasing and using the technology that would be the most likely to ever occur on the forest -- high-volume hydraulic fracturing -- is kind of a new issue for federal lands, and so there's just a lot of discussion going up and down the whole level of the Forest Service. Usually a plan is a local kind of decision, and the decision is made at a regional level in that kind of context; although we do look at national issues and needs and things like that, but I think this is even more of that kind of an issue that is just undergoing a lot of eyes and talking and a little bit more analysis."

The American Petroleum Institute (API) is among those opposing a ban on horizontal drilling in the GWNF, which it has called "an arbitrary and unprecedented shift in national energy policy through the forest management planning process" (see Shale Daily, Oct. 25, 2011). An alternative included in the draft plan, which API supports, would make no changes to current GWNF drilling rules.

When the draft was released, a USFS planning staff officer said that although the southern end of the Marcellus Shale runs under about half of the George Washington Forest, there had been no interest expressed in drilling there. About 12,000 acres in the GWNF were under lease but not active. There is even less activity in the area now, Overcash said Friday. One company that had held a few leases on privately held land near the forest has relinquished the land. "So even that little bit of interest is gone," she said.

The draft plan was the result of a collaboration among national forest managers, partner agencies such as the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, conservation organizations, and members of the public. The forest is currently operating under a management plan completed in 1993.

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