Over the past several years, the battle over fracking has brought Congressional hearings, protests and huge industry money to Washington DC. But in recent months the topic has taken on a new, more local turn in the nation's capital as oil and gas companies push to drill in a national forest near in the city's backyard and an unusual cast of charaters are lining up to oppose it.
The fight is over access to drill for shale gas in the George Washington National Forest and officials from the Environmental Protect Agency, Army Corps of Engineers and the National Park Service have come out in opposition, even though some of these same federal agencies have in other contexts helped to promote expanded shale gas drilling.
The forest is one of the East Coast’s most pristine ecosystems, home to some of its last old growth forests.
Horizontal drilling, key to shale gas extraction, has never before been permitted in the George Washington National Forest. But as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service prepares a new 15-year plan , drillers are pushing hard for the ban to be lifted despite the industry’s long record of spills, air pollution and water contamination on public lands.
“We want flexibility to operate if improvements in the technology allow it,” Mike Ward, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council told the Washington Post  on Saturday in an interview about the George Washington National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan. “To put a moratorium upfront slams the door without any further consideration.”
The ban was first added to a proposed forest management plan in 2011. But it has faced an aggressive campaign by officials from the shale drilling industry, who argue that a moratorium in the George Washington could set a bad precedent. If drilling is blocked in this federal forrest, it can be blocked in others, they say. Currently, shale drilling is underway in 2 other national forests, including Pennsylvania's Allegheny forest atop the Marcellus shale, with operations planned in a third as well.
Among locals, the worry is that the drilling might have an adverse affect on tourism. In Virginia, 138,000 people work in the outdoor recreation industry, which generates roughly $13.6 billion statewide, and over $920 million in state and local tax revenue, according to  the Southern Environmental Law Center, which supports the ban. Roughly 3 million visitors pass through the George Washington forest’s recreational areas each year, some hiking the 325-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail that passes through the George Washington, others arriving in limited-size groups to enjoy the 140,000 acres that represent some of the East Coast’s only specially-protected wilderness land . Because it’s within a few hours’ drive for many urban residents, the George Washington national forest is one of the park system’s most visited forests.
The ecology in these national forests is distinctly diverse and precious. The 2-million acre forrest hosts no less than 53 threatened or endangered plant and animal species. There are iconic and pollution-sensitive animals like otters, eastern bobcats, and the endangered Indiana Bat  -- and even reported sightings  of cougars, officially declared “extirpated” in the east by the Department of the Interior over a century ago. Over a dozen different  eagle and hawk species, including the bald eagle, migrate south each year along the George Washington forest’s ridgelines.
Federal researchers say that fracking puts wildlife at risk. “Hydraulic fracturing fluids are believed to be the cause of the widespread death or distress of aquatic species in Kentucky's Acorn Fork, after spilling from nearby natural gas well sites,” federal researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrote  this month, describing peer-reviewed research they recently published in the journal Southeastern Naturalist. "Our study is a precautionary tale of how entire populations could be put at risk even with small-scale fluid spills," added  Diana Papoulias, the study's lead author. Another report released this month concluded  that 360,000 acres of land nationwide have been directly damaged by fracking.
Conventional oil and gas extraction was technically already allowed in the George Washington national forest. But the 12,000 acres currently leased by oil companies in the forest were never drilled because permits were difficult to obtain. Leasing public lands is more common out West than on the East coast, and nationwide, roughly 92,000 oil and gas wells currently produce about 13 percent of American natural-gas production and 5 percent of domestic oil production.
The opposition from several federal agencies to drilling in the forrest is especially noteworthy. The E.P.A., which has found itself under fire from environmentalists who say the agency buried reports  on fracking contamination, supports a ban on horizontal drilling in the George Washington, as does the National Park Service.
Earlier this year, the Army Corps of Engineers took a pro-drilling stance by approving  a controversial pipeline that would cross protected wetlands and exceptional value streams and rivers in the Delaware watershed to deliver Marcellus shale gas to East Coast markets. But the Corps, which operates the Washington Aqueduct, the source of drinking water for D.C. and surrounding counties, has drawn the line on fracking in this forest.
“Although studies on the technique are still needed in order to fully understand the potential impacts on drinking water,” Thomas Jacobus, general manager of the Washington Aqueduct, wrote in public comments  supporting with the ban filed with the Forest Service. He added: “enough study has been done and information has been published to give us great cause of concern about the potential for degradation of the quality of our raw water supply as well as impact to the quantity of supply.”
Roughly 2,300 miles of relatively pristine perennial streams run through the George Washington forrest. Its rivers and streams ultimately flow into the Chesapeake Bay, but along the way, they form the headwaters of the James and Potomac Rivers.
Local residents are also overwhelming opposed to drilling in the forrest. County commissioners in Rockingham County blocked Marcellus extraction adjoining the forest, citing concerns about water contamination. Of the 53,000 public comments on the proposed horizontal drilling ban, 95 percent support keeping fracking out, including comments filed by local governments representing the cities of Harrisonburg, Lynchburg, Roanoke, and Staunton, and the counties of Augusta, Bath, Botetourt, Rockbridge, Rockingham, and Shenandoah, a review by the Southern Environmental Law Center found.
If the Forest Service backs away from the ban, roughly 95 percent of the forest will be available for oil and gas exploration and fracking, local environmental advocates say. The five-acre wellpads, access roads, and pipelines could create fissures across the woods, disrupting animal habitat and bringing run-off, truck traffic and the danger of chemical spills far from outside observer’s eyes. Spills in in the forest could also pollute the drinking water for millions of residents of Washington D.C. and neighboring communities.
Industry officials emphasize that they think it is only fair to keep options open. Dusty Horwitt, a senior analyst for Earthworks, a nonprofit environmental group, countered that some options are not worth keeping on the table.
“Why would the Forest Service gamble with the drinking water of more than 4 million people?” he asked .
Photo Credit: View of the Appalachians from the boulder-covered slopes of Duncan Knob, George Washington National Forest, Virginia via Shutterstock .