The crown jewels of our East Coast public lands—the Allegheny, George Washington, Jefferson, Monongahela, Wayne and Finger Lakes National Forests, along with forests across the interior west—lie right in the crosshairs of hydrofracking development.
We need your help to ensure that these areas are protected and that the gas industry is not allowed to run roughshod in our National Forests.
Hydrofracking is a relatively new technology that combines deep wells, horizontal drilling and fracturing of shale bedrock.
The natural gas industry is laying plans now for extensive drilling that will contaminate surface and subsurface waters, kill forest vegetation and create health hazards for the American public.
At issue in the East is the gas that is trapped in the Marcellus Shale and other formations that reach from New York’s Finger Lakes, south through Pennsylvania, Ohio, the Virginias, and into parts of Kentucky and Tennessee. These natural gas-rich rocks run hundreds of feet thick and lie more than a mile underground, which has made them inaccessible to conventional commercial exploitation for most of the past 100 years.
Hydrofracking makes it possible to access the gas, but the environmental cost is steep.
To reach the gas using hydrofracking methods, miners first drill a deep, vertical hole down to the level of the natural gas-rich shale bed. Using the vertical bore hole as a conduit, the drilling machinery then makes a 90-degree turn to drill horizontally into the shale bed. One vertical hole is used to access a 360-degree radius of horizontally drilled spokes, each of which can traverse several miles through the relatively thin shale bed.
The key to making this new technology work is water—lots and lots of water. About 5 million gallons are needed to develop and exploit a single hydrofracking well. The water is pumped under high pressure into the horizontally drilled spokes where it fractures the shale rock releasing the stored natural gas.
The likely source for all that water is the small streams that flow out of these Appalachian valleys.
Despite the fact that Congress originally reserved our National Forests “for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows,” forest planners today are ready to contaminate millions of gallons of clean water in order to appease the gas industry.
Before pumping the water into a well, drillers add chemicals—including gelling agents, surfactants, chlorides, metals, biocides, lubricants, organics and radionuclides—to increase its shale-fracturing abilities. After the water has been used to fracture the shale, 60 to 80 percent returns to the surface where it must be disposed of.
The water that is returned to the surface contains not only the fracking chemicals, but also whatever other minerals and toxics are found underground in the gas-rich shale rock. Disposing of this heavily contaminated water is a major headache for miners—and a bigger one for the environment. The water is either left to settle in a holding pond, often resulting in toxic leaks that kill forest vegetation; dumped into old wells, where it can pollute connected aquifers; or trucked to sewage treatment plants, none of which are designed to handle the toxic chemical stew.
The threat of water pollution that hydrofracking poses is simply antithetical to the purposes for which our National Forests were created.
Here at FSEEE, we know what massive natural gas development looks like. The Allegheny National Forest is a poster child for what happens when natural gas exploitation trumps every other consideration. Much of the Allegheny is “split estate” land, where the Forest Service owns only the land surface while the underground oil and gas are owned privately.
Needless to say, this puts the Forest Service in a tough spot. It cannot deny access outright to the underground private property owner. It must accommodate the drilling and make the best of a bad situation.
But most National Forests at the center of the hydrofracking controversy can and should do better!
The federal government owns the mineral rights on 84 percent of the George Washington National Forest and 62 percent of the Monongahela. Whether these federally owned mineral estates are exploited for their underground natural gas is decided by the Forest Service.
The Forest Service is now revising its forest plans to determine which watersheds will be available for lease to private interests for hydrofracking. In the 1980s, when these forest plans were first written, most natural gas shale formations were too deep to be considered exploitable.
Technological advances in hydrofracking have made the previously unthinkable an immediate threat.
FSEEE has launched an initiative to ensure that National Forests are not leased out to developers for hydrofracking. National Forests are far more valuable for their enduring and sustainable supply of water than for a one-time exploitation of underground natural gas.
Our campaign focuses on the forest plans now being revised where the eligibility for oil and gas leasing decisions are made. The Forest Service published the first of its Marcellus shale-area draft forest plans late last year. In it, the Forest Service says that “over 900,000 acres on the Forest are available for federal oil and gas leasing.” That’s 90 percent of the George Washington National Forest! Although the draft plan imposes a temporary moratorium on hydrofracking, that short-term ban expires on May 1, 2013. After that date, it’s open season on horizontal drilling and associated hydrofracking on the George Washington National Forest.
No law compels the Forest Service to authorize oil and gas development on our National Forests. It is entirely within the agency’s discretion to prioritize the protection of water, wildlife and human health over the extraction of natural gas.
Yet the agency refuses to do so.
On one hand, the agency admits that hydrofracking associated with Marcellus shale extraction poses a serious threat to water quality. On the other hand, they open up almost all of the National Forests to leasing and hydrofracking. That makes no sense.
FSEEE’s position is simple: Our National Forests were created to protect water. There is no alternative to water; without it life ceases. There are lots of alternatives to the Marcellus Shale natural gas located a mile below our National Forests. Alternatives that don’t require we pollute our water and foul our forests.
Please help FSEEE put an end to hydrofracking on our National Forests. We are prepared to stop the Forest Service from threatening our water with toxic drilling through the courts if necessary.
As we have in the past, FSEEE will monitor the agency to ensure that each National Forest leasing federal mineral rights evaluate the environmental impacts of natural gas development on these public lands. Not only will this begin to shed light on the extensive and possibly catastrophic degradation that can occur on public lands, but it will also provide you, the owners of our National Forests, the opportunity to finally speak up about the dangerous impacts of hydrofracking.