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19 Nov, 2014 20:31

Feds approve fracking in massive Washington National forest

Feds approve fracking in massive Washington National forest

A federally sanctioned decision announced this week will mean fracking can soon occur within portions of the largest national forest in the eastern half of the United States.

On Tuesday, the US Forest Service greenlighted a plan that installs rules that will let energy companies conduct hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, within the massive multistate George Washington National Forest.

Environmentalists had largely tried to keep the forest free of fracking operations, in which chemicals are pumped deep below the ground in order to extract natural gas, arguing against the potential polluting of the area’s water supply and other unknown risks that remain possible repercussions from the relatively new and often controversial drilling practice.

Nevertheless, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday that the decision reached by the Forest Service this week is welcomed by environmentalists and energy boosters alike who are considering the federal agency’s decision to be a proper compromise between both sides.

According to the AP, the agency approved a plan that will let drilling occur within around 177,000 acres of the 1.1 million acre forest: 167,000 acres with existing private mineral rights and 10,000 acres already leased to oil and gas companies. The Forest Service had originally proposed a plan in 2011 that would have outright banned fracking across the entirety of the site — a first for a national forest, according to the AP — but ultimately this week’s decision has opened the door for sections of the forest already approved for oil and gas operations to go ahead with fracking plans.

"We think the decision shows the Forest Service listened to the local community," Sarah Francisco, the leader of the Southern Environmental Law Center's national forests and parks program, told the AP. "The vast majority of the forest is protected in this decision."

"We think we've ended up in a much better place, which is we are allowing oil and gas drilling," added Robert Bonnie, the undersecretary for national resources and environment at the US Department of Agriculture, the agency that oversees the Forest Service. "From a policy perspective, the Forest Service allows fracking on forest lands throughout the country. We didn't want to make a policy decision or change policy related to fracking. This decision is about where it's appropriate to do oil and gas leasing."

Earlier this year, Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia where much of the forest is located, said he would keep fracking out of George Washington as long as he stays in office. According to CBS News, however, Ken Arney, a regional manager for the US Forest Service, ultimately had the last word.

Upon Arney’s decision, Gov. McAuliffe saluted the compromise and said the Forest Service’s decision to only open portions of the site to fracking “is evidence that our voices were heard.”

Additionally, US Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, also of Virginia, applauded the final decision.

“We have long urged the Forest Service to seriously consider the concerns of Virginians about the potential impacts of horizontal drilling and applaud Supervisor Sparks for taking the time to ensure all stakeholders were heard during this process. We also applaud the recommendation of a National Scenic Area designation for Shenandoah Mountain. We recognize the hard work that went into this plan and remain committed to doing everything we can to preserve Virginia’s beautiful public lands,”
they said in a statement.