Threatening the water supply for millions of Americans, the U.S. Forest Service has opened the doors for oil and gas companies to drill by fracking the largest national forest on the East Coast, the George Washington National Forest, according to an updated federal management plan released Tuesday.
Backtracking on an earlier plan to restrict fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, which has been linked to dangerous levels of air and groundwater pollution, the Obama administration reportedly caved to industry pressure to permit such drilling of the Marcellus Shale within park perimeters.
"In the face of dire warnings from the world’s foremost climate scientists about the need to phase out fossil fuels by 2100 and an authoritative body of science demonstrating the health impacts faced by communities living near oil and gas development, this administration continues to promote an 'all of the above' energy policy rather than a swift transition to renewable energy," Bruce Baizel, energy program director for environmental nonprofit Earthworks, said in a press statement following the release of the new management plan.
"The President can protect the climate and public health, or he can continue to promote fracking," Baizel continued. "He cannot do both."
The Associated Press reports:
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.
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The George Washington National Forest spans the Appalachian mountain ridge in Virginia into West Virginia and boasts hardwood and pine forests as well as thousands of miles of streams and hundreds of species of birds and mammals.
Documentarian Josh Fox, whose film Gasland was one of the first to draw attention to the toxic drilling practice, said the rule change was "unbelievable, terrible news."
Scientific studies show that fracking, which releases shale gas and oil by injecting a slurry of water and unknown chemicals into the earth, causes significant groundwater contamination as well as dangerous levels of methane emissions, a highly potent greenhouse gas. The practice has also been linked to earthquakes, indicating that fracking has significant effect on the geology of the planet, according to researchers.
Environmental groups warn that drilling in the forest could pollute the rivers and streams that feed into the Potomac River, which provides drinking water for five million people and is Washington D.C.'s only source of water. Further, according to the USFS, the Forest is the largest federal landholding in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and is the direct source of drinking water for about 262,000 people in local communities in and around Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
According to the USFS, the new plan establishes a framework for potential development on roughly 180,000 acres of the Forest where federal leases or privately owned mineral rights exist but are currently not active.
"The decision does not prohibit any specific technology for developing oil and gas resources, including hydraulic fracturing," the USFS press statement reads. However, according to the park service, any proposal to develop the existing leases will undergo further environmental analysis with opportunities for public comment.