Monday, September 09, 2013

Forest Service To Decide on Hydraulic Fracturing

The U.S. Forest Service is expected to decide this month whether to ban or allow the controversial method of drilling called hydraulic fracturing (fracking) under their new, 15-year management plan. The decision will settle a dispute between conservationists and the oil and gas industry.

The fracking process involves drilling a deep vertical well, then bending it horizontally so millions of gallons of water and toxic chemicals can be blasted into the earth to fracture shale and release gas.

This decision will impact a major area near Washington, D.C., the George Washington National Forest, which includes the headwaters of the Shenandoah, James and Potomac rivers, a source of drinking water for millions of people in greater Washington.  The forest, nearly 2 million acres of natural splendor straddling Virginia and West Virginia, also holds natural gas trapped under a deep layer of rock called the Marcellus Shale.

The oil and gas industry argues that it would be unfair for the government to “slam the door” on hydraulic fracturing in the forest for such a long period of time, and points out that natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal. More than 500 million cubic feet of gas is entombed in Marcellus Shale, which runs 95,000 square miles between Virginia and Ohio.

Conservationists say the drilling method, also referred to as fracking, could contaminate water at its source.

The Forest Service proposed banning the practice two years ago, a move criticized by
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) as overreach. But the proposed ban is backed by two agencies that provide drinking water to 4.5 million customers from the Potomac: the Army Corps of Engineers — which operates the Washington Aqueduct, from which the District, Arlington County and Falls Church withdraw water — and the Fairfax County Water Authority.

Thomas P. Jacobus, the aqueduct’s general manager, called the forest streams and rivers “a key resource,” and said in a letter to the Forest Service that anything that undermines agreements made by states to preserve the water quality of the Potomac “would be unwelcome. Safe water supply is essential to life.”

The forest streams and rivers, called headwaters, form in the region’s highest elevations and flow down. They are the origin of the Potomac’s drinking water and provide the water that created the James and Shenandoah rivers.  If you had a pollutant anywhere in the watershed, it would be a concern. Any pollution in the headwaters would have to be dealt with by everyone downstream.  (Wash Post, 9/7/2013)

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