The federal government will allow a controversial form of gas extraction called fracking in the George Washington National Forest, but it will sharply cut the amount of land on which fracking could occur.
The much-anticipated decision represents in effect a compromise between people who feared fracking would harm the 1.1 million acre forest and industry representatives who said the process can be done safely.
“This is a decision about where it’s appropriate to do oil and gas,” said Robert Bonnie, under secretary for natural resources and environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It’s not a decision about how you do it.”
The USDA includes the National Forest Service, which runs the George Washington in west-central Virginia. About 10 percent of the forest lies in West Virginia.
Streams in the forest lead to rivers that supply drinking water for more than 4 million people, including residents in the Richmond and Washington regions.
The decision to allow fracking lies within a new management plan that will guide activities in the forest for the next 10 to 15 years. The plan is being released today.
Before today, about 995,000 acres in the forest were available for drilling. Under the plan, that shrinks to 177,000 acres.
Those 177,000 acres include 10,000 that are under lease for drilling, and 167,000 where private interests own the underground mineral rights even though the Forest Service owns the trees and other resources above the ground.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, typically involves injecting water, sand and chemicals underground at high pressure to break up rocks that harbor gas or oil.
Critics say the process can pollute streams and underground water. In the national forest, they said, it would also conflict with the scenery and pastoral atmosphere. Opponents of fracking in the George Washington included Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Supporters say fracking is a safe method that, combined with horizontal drilling, has made once hard-to-reach gas reserves accessible.
The George Washington lies on the southeastern fringe of the Marcellus Shale, a region rich in underground natural gas. But federal officials said that part of the shale region that lies in the George Washington is not particularly productive, and while some companies have acquired drilling rights, no one has drilled.