The National Forest Service will have to decide whether to allow fracking in the George Washington National Forest.
Sometime in the next few months, the U.S. Forest Service will announce whether it's going to allow hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, within Virginia's George Washington National Forest. It wouldn't be the first national forest to allow fracking, but advocates on both sides of the debate view the looming decision as crucial.
The forest service was originally scheduled to deliver a decision in September, but planning staff officer Ken Landgraf recently announced his agency needs a little more time to finalize its plan.
"It's related to the number of comments," he says. "We need to address all of those comments we heard, and also the complexity of the issue."
Some of that complexity boils down to uncertainty over just how risky fracking is to the environment, how often well-casings crack and how often natural gas and the chemicals used in the process seep into groundwater.
Dusty Horwitt, senior analyst for the environmental group EarthWorks, says the risks are too great, especially in a National Forest holding the headwaters of the Potomac River.
"We're talking about allowing this process in the watershed that supplies drinking water for more than four million people. The question is why would we want to take that kind of gamble," he says.
Steve Everley, a spokesman for the industry advocacy group Energy In Depth, says Horwitt is exaggerating the risks of fracking. He points out that balancing resources such as drinking water and mineral deposits on federal land is exactly why the Forest Service exists.
"What the forest service has found it can do—for 100 years now—is protect vital areas of forest, make sure that these are available for recreation and multi-use, and also safely develop the mineral resources underneath," he says.
Kate Wofford, director of the non-profit Shenandoah Valley Network, says that may be true in other parts of the country, but the oil-and-gas industry doesn't have a long history in her part of Virginia, and should not start with fracking.
"Five-acre well pads with 24 hour lights, the relentless truck traffic in an out of the well sites. None of these heavy industrial uses are compatible with the other multiple uses that the forest provides," she says.
Wofford also points out all of the local town councils and county governments in and around the national forest have come out supporting a ban on fracking on forest land.