In Virginia, Tug of War Persists Over a National Forest Atop Shale Gas Reserves

Many states in the U.S. have grappled with how, or whether, to exploit newly accessible reserves of shale gas. In Virginia, the question is complicated by the fact that its shale lies beneath about half of a one-million-acre national forest; and what happens in that forest could have implications for federal lands across the country.

The George Washington National Forest, which runs vertically across the state along the western side, overlies part of the Marcellus shale, the vast formation that is already being developed in neighboring West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Virginia’s shale gas debate erupted three years ago, when Houston-based Carrizo Oil & Gas applied for a land-use permit to build the state’s first Marcellus shale well near Bergton, a community at the northern edge of the forest. (See related story: “Natural Gas Nation: EIA Sees U.S. Future Shaped by Fracking.”)

The state government approved the permit for the well, but it was never issued. The board of supervisors for Rockingham County tabled Carrizo’s request to drill until more was known about fracking’s effects. The vast majority of Carrizo’s initial leases have now expired, according to the company, but the battle over state policy continues.

The U.S. Forest Service was already considering how to address gas leasing in the George Washington when the issue emerged in Bergton. The agency included a complete ban on horizontal drilling as part of an update to the forest’s management plan released for public comment in 2011. But opposition to the drilling ban from the gas industry and members of the Virginia state government has created delays in approving the final plan. Ken Landgraf, a natural resources officer with the Forest Service, could not give a date when a decision might come, but thought it would be “later in the summer.”

At stake is the drilling that is already occurring in other national forests—a ban by forest managers in Virginia could be repeated on federal lands across the country. If the ban is not approved by the head of the Forest Service’s southern region, Elizabeth Agpaoa, Virginia could become a new frontier for natural gas exploration.

“We felt the risks outweighed the benefits because of the newness of the technology,” said Karen Overcash, a planner for the U.S. Forest Service based in Roanoke, when asked why the agency chose to include the drilling ban in the draft plan. “There is just far too much uncertainty about the environmental impacts.” (See related story: “Health Questions Key to New York Fracking Decision, But Answers Scarce.”)

Fracking, the industry often points out, is not new. The techniques of horizontal drilling and of injecting sand and liquids into rock in order to release oil and gas have been around for decades. It is the combination of those techniques, along with other advances, that have stoked the recent shale gas and oil boom that has transformed the U.S. energy landscape. (See related interactive: “Breaking Fuel from the Rock.”)

Kate Wofford, director of the Shenandoah Valley Network, has been advocating for the drilling ban since it was proposed in 2011. She said any drilling in the forest would leave a “tremendous footprint” on the untouched landscape, which is home to thousands of species of plants and wildlife, 53 of which are federally classified as threatened or endangered. The Forest Service estimates that nearly 3 million people visit the forest every year for recreation.

“This could potentially turn the forest into an industrial zone,” Wofford said, pointing out that drilling would mean clearing land to construct drill pads, pouring concrete, and widening roads to allow for truck access.

Wofford argued there is too much at stake to risk drilling a resource with unknown potential. Virginia shale’s composition is different from other parts of the Marcellus, because it is less pressurized and not as deep underground. It also is possible there could be less gas in Virginia shale to harvest: A 2011 U.S. Geological Survey assessment concluded that Virginia’s undiscovered gas resources are a fraction of those in neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

“The fact that it is unclear how profitable this would even be is yet another reason that I think decision-makers ought to be cautious,” Wofford said.

Sitting Out a Gas Boom, For Now

In Pennsylvania, there are multiple gas companies drilling in the Allegheny National Forest. Seneca Resources, one of the largest companies operating in Pennsylvania, has exploratory wells in the Allegheny and 21 wells in production in Loyalsock State Forest in Lycoming County. (See related coverage: “The Great Shale Gas Rush.”)

Greg Kozera, president of the Virginia Oil and Gas Association, has been an outspoken opponent of the drilling ban in the George Washington National Forest. He said shutting the door on this opportunity in Virginia “makes zero sense.”

Kozera dismisses the argument against drilling based on uncertainty about how productive the shale in Virginia would be. He said this would not even be a discussion if companies did not think the shale was profitable.

“In any venture there is a risk,” Kozera said. “When they first started doing this in Pennsylvania, they didn’t know how it was going to turn out.”

Indeed, the outcome for shale gas producers is still playing out across the country. Concern over falling prices and questions about the long-term productivity of shale gas wells have raised questions about the profitability of shale gas development. Richard Hunter, vice president of investor relations at Carrizo, conceded that one reason Carrizo was not renewing expiring leases in Virginia was that “it’s just not economic right now” to pursue development. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, under pressure from producers eager to capitalize on the U.S. bounty of natural gas, has promised a prompt review of applications to export the resource. (See related story: “Natural Gas Nation: EIA Sees U.S. Future Shaped by Fracking.”)

Virginia’s shale composition presents another set of unknowns. The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) said in a review of the forest management plan that the Virginia shale would require a lower volume of fracking fluids because its characteristics are different from the shale in other states. Jim Lovett, a geologist with DMME, explained that Virginia Marcellus shale tends to be shallower, thinner, and softer and has a higher clay content. He added that there are still many questions about the shale in Virginia that will not be answered until drilling, testing and fracking are tried.

“You can’t really compare what could happen in Virginia to what’s happening now in Pennsylvania,” Lovett said. “All of the components of a drilling site are custom designed. From an engineering standpoint, every site is different.”

No Speedy Resolution

The federal government owns the vast majority of the mineral rights in the George Washington, but about 12 percent of the mineral rights are privately owned. This means even if the Forest Service ban is approved, the people who own those rights could choose to lease their land to a gas company, allowing drilling to proceed.

And U.S. Forest Service planner Overcash said even if a ban is approved, it is not the end of the discussion: The decision can be changed when the management plan is reviewed and updated again in 10 to 15 years.

Either way, many residents in the area remain vigilant. Marge Peevey, 76, a Bergton resident who owns land bordering the George Washington, said she wants her community to be more informed.

After Carrizo expressed interest in drilling in Bergton, Peevey and other area residents organized the Land, Air, Water, Stewardship Action Group to hold public meetings on the topic.

“We’ve really tried hard to raise awareness and educate people,” Peevey said. “The noise, the pollution, who would want that? Call me old fashioned, but I want things to stay just as they are.”