The American Petroleum Institute (API) is urging the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to reject proposals to ban horizontal drilling in the 1.1-million-acre George Washington National Forest (GWNF) in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. API said a ban would amount to “an arbitrary and unprecedented shift in national energy policy through the forest management planning process.”

A draft management plan being considered for the GWNF would allow gas leasing on one million acres but prohibit horizontal drilling on all federal leases. 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 overlies portions of the Marcellus Shale, runs north-south with most of the forest lying on the Virginia side of the Virginia-West Virginia border.

“API’s concern is underscored by the fact that no ban on horizontal drilling was sought for the neighboring Jefferson National Forest, which also sits atop substantial Marcellus Shale resources, by the USFS during its recent 15-year plan revision for that forest,” API said in comments filed on Oct. 17, the final day of an extended comment period for the draft management plan.

“In addition, a ban on horizontal drilling would run directly counter to administration policy on shale gas development. This in turn would frustrate efforts to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign sources of energy and hurt efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by preventing more cost-competitive, clean-burning natural gas from coming to markets. Finally, and perhaps most critically, a ban on horizontal drilling in the GWNF would foreclose the creation of new local government revenue streams and thousands of new jobs in communities in and around the forest in the oil and gas, technology, service, transportation and related sectors.”

One alternative included in the plan, which API said it supports, would make no changes to current GWNF drilling rules. And API recommended that USFS develop a new alternative that does not impose a ban on horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing (fracking) “to accommodate the federal government’s multi-use mandate.”

About 12,000 acres in the GWNF are under lease but not active. The only area with active natural gas drilling is in the far southwest corner of Virginia in the Jefferson Forest. The production there is in more traditional deposits with no horizontal drilling. A management plan completed for the Jefferson Forest in 2004 includes no restrictions on horizontal drilling.

Besides the prohibition on horizontal drilling, the GWNF plan includes other restrictions on development of underground wells. It also would allow consideration of wind energy development, but it prohibits it on 450,000 acres of areas identified as sensitive. Unlike National Parks and Wilderness areas, some commercial development is allowed in national forests.

The plan also includes a recommendation for one new wilderness study area, while three other areas are recommended as additions to existing wilderness areas. Total proposed new areas for wilderness designation amount to 20,000 acres. These are areas to be preserved in a natural state with no commercial uses.

USFS expects to complete a final GWNF environmental impact statement and management plan by March, a Forest Service spokesperson told NGI’s Shale Daily.

Officials with the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management and USFS have said they have no plans to develop a broad ban on horizontal drilling and fracking on federal and forest lands (see NGI, July 11).

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