RICHMOND, Virginia - The U.S. Forest Service has backed off a proposal to ban fracking in the George Washington National Forest, a move likely to upset conservationists who oppose the controversial drilling practice.
Under a final plan set for release Tuesday, the Forest Service will allow drilling on some land. That's an about-face from a preliminary proposal released three years ago that would have prohibited fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, for oil and natural gas inside the popular national forest, which contains 1.1 million acres in Virginia and West Virginia.
"The initial draft was one way to go at it, but our policy is we deal with surface issues and we do not get involved in how and what methodology is used to extract oil and gas," said Tom Tidwell, chief of the Forest Service.
Instead of taking a stance on fracking, the Forest Service has decided to stop leasing additional land for energy extraction. Oil and natural gas companies already lease about 10,000 acres within the forest and own the underground mineral rights for an additional 167,000 acres, according to the Forest Service. That land will remain open for extraction.
The new policy, which is expected to take effect early next year, caps the amount of land available for drilling at about 16 percent of the forest.
The oil and gas industry has argued that it would be unfair for the government to "slam the door" on fracking in the forest for the 10- to 15-year life of the plan; energy companies have also pointed out that natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal.
Conservationists say the drilling method could contaminate water at its source. The process involves drilling a deep vertical well that is then drilled horizontally so millions of gallons of water and toxic chemicals can be blasted into the earth, fracturing shale and releasing the gas trapped within it.
Officials say the new plan represents an attempt to satisfy both sides.
"We've had substantial public comments and concern from the local community about oil and gas on the national forest. We've tried to balance those interests with existing areas for oil and gas and think we've gone a good job," said Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for natural resources and environment at the Agriculture Department.
Bonnie said the new plan for the George Washington National Forest is not a departure from policy elsewhere.
"It makes no determination on how oil and gas is accessed. In other words, it doesn't take a stance on horizontal fracturing or fracking. That's something that we allow on other national forests across the country. We don't take a stand one way or the other here," Bonnie said.
It updates a plan adopted in 1993 that made almost all of the forest available for leasing and offered no restrictions on what methods could be used, said Tom Speaks, forest supervisor at the George Washington and Jefferson national forests.
None of the existing leases or privately owned mineral rights are actively being worked, a circumstance that Bonnie said speaks to the quality of the energy deposits.
"I think the most telling part is that there's just not a lot of economic interest right now in the reserves, both on the forest and immediately off the forest, and we just think that's indicative of the fact that these aren't economic reserves right now," Bonnie said.
The new policy does not guarantee the right to drill, even on land where leases are in place. If a company wants to drill on land it already leases, it must first obtain a federal permit from the Bureau of Land Management, which works with the Forest Service to determine whether to grant or deny permission, said Ken Landgraf, planning and forest ecology group staff officer for the George Washington and Jefferson national forests. Then the company must get approval from the state.
But if a company wants to drill on land where it already owns mineral rights, it can skip the federal process and simply go through the state, Landgraf said.
One company, R&R Royalty of Corpus Christi, Tex., controls all 10,000 acres under lease in the forest, Landgraf said.
The new plan appears to defy Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D, who has vigorously opposed fracking in the national forest.
"They support me on what my decision is. I have told them they will not allow fracking in the national forest. I do not support fracking as governor of the commonwealth, and we're in mutual agreement on that," he told reporters after a meeting on climate change in September.
Environmental groups have criticized McAuliffe for supporting a proposed 550-mile natural gas transmission pipeline through Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. Some say the pipeline could indirectly encourage fracking from companies enticed by a cheap, quick way to get their product to market.
But McAuliffe said the pipeline would create jobs, prevent spikes in energy bills during severe weather and lure heavy manufacturing to the state.
The pipeline is undergoing the special-use permitting process, which Landgraf said is unchanged under the new plan.
While drilling concerns have dominated discussion around the new plan for years, Speaks noted that the bulk of the plan relates to uses for timber production, recreation, wildlife and roads.
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Washington Post staff writer Darryl Fears contributed to this report.