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Access to energy resources must be weighed against necessary protections for public water supplies.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
The George Washington National Forest is neither a national park nor a high-intensity industrial park.
Its resources are intended to be used for the public good, requiring a careful balancing of all its natural assets. Forest officials take their multi-faceted mission seriously as they seek to provide access for both recreational activities as well as logging operations. They were wise to recommend a prohibition on horizontal drilling for natural gas in a draft management plan released for public comment in 2011. They should retain that ban in the final plan, due for release this summer.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, frees up natural gas from rock formations by pumping millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals a mile or more underground. The drilling technology promises riches from previously unreachable energy resources, but at the risk of the national forest’s most precious asset: water.
Forest streams are home to a wealth of aquatic life, but they also feed three public reservoirs and provide safe drinking water to 262,000 people. Fracking’s need for vast quantities of surface water and its potential to contaminate groundwater present a dual threat.
None of this is to suggest that fracking is without value. It allows access to untapped natural gas desposits, a fossil fuel that releases half of the greenhouse gases produced by coal-burning power plants. It is and should be part of our national energy strategy.
But it does not follow that the national forest is an appropriate host for horizontal drilling operations. There is no immediate trade-off in this instance. Less than 0.5 percent of the forest’s 1.1 million acres is used for minerals extraction, primarily to obtain stone for trail, road and campground construction.
Fracking is a new and evolving technology. It did not exist when the current management plan for the George Washington National Forest was adopted in 1993. Federal and state regulations have not kept up with industry developments, contributing to disastrous consequences from wastewater spills in other states. Virginia does not require gas companies to reveal the types of chemicals they inject into the ground. Some voluntarily provide reports that may or may not be comprehensive. Nationally, the practice is exempted from compliance with Safe Drinking Water Act rules.
Given rapid changes in the industry, forest officials should not act in haste or give in to pressure from energy companies. They are expected to take a long-term view in planning the forest’s future, and for now that responsibility demands that they err on the side of caution.
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