Roanoke Times: Editorial: No Fracking in the National Forest

The risky drilling method has no place on public lands until it is demonstrably safe.

Tremendous natural wealth lies buried beneath Virginia’s ancient mountains. Men and women who would profit from that subterranean bounty of fossil fuels seek the most efficient and fastest ways to extract it, and they have their eyes on the George Washington National Forest.

The U.S. Forest Service should not allow them to use one possibly risky extraction method.

At issue is the controversial practice of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking.” It is a means to obtain natural gas stored in shale rock. Simply, a drill goes down, then across, injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals to destroy rock and free up the precious gas.

Fracking is controversial because there is evidence that it has undesirable side effects such as mishandled waste, tainted aquifers and trashed acreage. In the worst possible cases, it can destroy an ecosystem. As Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey put it during a congressional hearing last week, it has “the potential to turn stretches of forest into lifeless dunes.”

The Forest Service therefore proposes a 15-year moratorium on horizontal fracking in the Washington National Forest. That sensible precaution would protect the public’s precious natural resources on the surface — the trees, mountains and waterways that create such stunning vistas and recreational opportunities.

A subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives held its hearing last week to investigate the idea. By “investigate” we mostly mean “criticize.” Many Republicans are no fans of protecting the environment when that would slow or prevent their industry allies from profiting off fossil fuels beneath public lands. Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, whose district includes much of the forest as well as Roanoke, remains one of the most vocal critics of a moratorium despite concerns by constituents who would be most affected.

Yet holding off for a while in the national forest will allow the technology to mature and the long-term effects of fracking to be fully realized. Natural gas companies can deploy it on private holdings in the meantime.

Then, if the risks prove manageable and the need for natural gas remains high, the reserves under the Washington National Forest will still be there a decade or more down the road.