April 26, 2013
The George Washington National Forest is home to trout fishing, hiking trails, 250 species of birds and millions of visitors each year. It's also home to marcellus shale, a geological formation deep underground that contains natural gas. It's big business for oil companies, who are eying the GW Forest.
"All of the large companies out there developing shales are looking for new ones," said Drew Winston, an MBA student at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. Before coming to UVa, Winston worked in the energy investment sector in Texas. "You also have a lot of start ups where guys are going out specifically looking for shales to develop throughout the U.S."
Some companies are already leasing land in the GW Forest. In June, the US Forest Service is expected to announce it's decision on whether gas companies can drill for natural gas in the forest through a process called hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.
"The natural forest would not just be impacted by the specific drilling site," said Kim Sandum, a resident in Rockingham County and the executive director of the Community Alliance for Preservation, a group opposed to drilling. "The roads and all of the infrastructure-pipelines, compressor stations... It changes an area fundamentally. It's not just a little hole in the ground."
Lawyers with the Southern Environmental Law Center say the biggest threat posed by fracking is water contamination.
"The GW Forest is an essential source of drinking water for our region," said Sarah Francisco, the leader of national forests and park programs at SELC. "It's a source of drinking water for at least 4.75 million people, from local communities around the Shenandoah Valley, to cities downstream like Richmond and much of the Washington, DC metro area."
Others worry fracking would wipe out the hiking trails and take away from the recreational draws. "This Shenandoah Mountain area is one of the best mountain biking sites in the Eastern U.S." said Lynn Cameron, an avid hiker and director of Friends of Shenandoah Mountain.
Taking the environmental risks into consideration, supporters of fracking say the technology has revolutionized the energy landscape in the US, changing the way Americans depend on oil sources.
"If you look at the last month alone, we imported 37 percent of the oil we needed compared to 70 percent four years ago,"Winston said. "It's really changed who we will depend on for oil and where we get our oil and gas from."
People like Cameron and Sandum are just hoping it doesn't come from the GW Forest.