Over the objection of environmental groups and Virginia's governor, a federal management plan released Tuesday will allow a form of natural gas drilling known as fracking to occur in parts of the largest national forest on the East Coast.The EPA Chesapeake Bay Program, through it's barely disguised mouthpiece, the Bay Journal gave it mixed reviews:
The U.S. Forest Service originally planned to ban fracking in the 1.1 million-acre George Washington National Forest, but energy companies cried foul after a draft of the plan was released in 2011. It would have been the first outright ban on the practice in a national forest.
"We think we've ended up in a much better place, which is we are allowing oil and gas drilling," Robert Bonnie, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's undersecretary for natural resources and environment, told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.
"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."
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Under the new plan, which is subject to appeal, drilling will only be permitted on 167,000 acres where there are existing private mineral rights and on about 10,000 acres that are already leased to oil and gas companies. The leased acreage is in Highland County, while the private mineral rights are scattered throughout the forest. Many local government officials near the forest objected to allowing any drilling, and in September, Gov. Terry McAuliffe told the inaugural meeting of a climate change panel that he wouldn't allow fracking in the forest as long as he was governor.
In the press release announcing the plan, the US Forest Service said that the plan “provides for recreation, wildlife and water quality” and offers “a balance of management decisions” that provide , in the long term, for the ecological stability of the forest and the social and economic needs of “those that are dependent on or are impacted by” the forest.This, at least, is interesting, if only because Wild Virginia is opposing a power plant fired by renewable biomass energy,
At the same time, Wild Virginia, an advocacy group focused on preservation of intact forest systems, called the plan “a peculiar mix that affords greater protection to many parts of the forest and increased logging and management of the rest.”
The plan allows for the removal of 8.75 million tons of “unconventional timber” for biomass burning, which, according to Wild Virginia president Ernie Reed, “has no public benefit.” Reed said that the areas made available for small tree removal would mostly benefit the nearby MeadWestvaco plant in Covington, VA, which has recently installed a biomass-powered generator that supplies its electric power.
Wild Virginia also noted that the plan increases the number of acres suitable for timber harvest, which puts at risk the endangered Indiana bat, whose population has plummeted in Virginia due to white-nose syndrome.
But the “biggest imminent threat” to the forest, said Wild Virginia, is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would slice through Shenandoah Mountain, one of the largest intact forest systems on the east coast (see November 2014 Bay Journal, “Proposed natural gas pipeline slices through Virginia, national forests).Oh goody, another pipeline to fight over!