Virginia official blasts horizontal drilling ban in national forest

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, July 8 -- A Virginia government official joined oil and gas industry groups in criticizing a draft US Forest Service plan with a preferred option allowing oil and gas leasing in the George Washington National Forest, but banning horizontal drilling.

“We know of no justification, scientific or otherwise, for ending the effective collaboration between Virginia and the US Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies to provide access to those resources,” Maureen Matsen, Virginia’s deputy director of natural resources, told a July 8 joint hearing of two US House subcommittees.

“In fact, horizontal drilling would allow access to the important energy resource under the forest with few wells, and far less construction and disruption above ground than comes with the traditional vertical wells that have historically been permitted in the forest,” she continued.

A US Forest Service official responded that the draft plan does not necessarily mean horizontal drilling will not be allowed there. “This plan is place-specific based on the particular circumstances of the GWNF, and does not represent a broader policy with regard to hydraulic fracturing,” said Joel Holtrop, the US Department of Agriculture agency’s deputy chief. Comments on the draft forest plan will be accepted through Sept. 1, he noted.

“There are no Forest Service discussions or efforts under way to develop a national policy to ban horizontal drilling,” Holtrop maintained. “On the contrary, the administration believes that the recent technological advancements that have allowed industry to access abundant reserves of natural gas, particularly from shale formations, provide enormous potential benefits to the country, as long as [they are] done in a way that protects public health and the environment.”

Reflects reluctance
The US House Natural Resources Committee’s Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee and the Agriculture Committee’s Conservation, Energy, and Forestry Subcommittee’s joint hearing specifically addressed proposed federal oil and gas policies in the national forest along the Virginia-West Virginia state line. But Lee O. Fuller, vice-president of government relations, said the proposed plan reflects the Obama administration’s reluctance to accept oil and gas production technologies which have been safely used for years, but which environmental and other organizations have called into question.

The draft environmental impact statement for the GWNF’s revised land and resource management plan’s preferred alternative astonishingly justifies a horizontal drilling ban on the basis of limiting surface disruption and water demand, he told the subcommittees. “A fundamental benefit of horizontal drilling is that it reduces the surface footprint of oil and gas development,” Fuller stated.

Matsen said, “The proposed ban would harm Virginia, and Virginians, by burdening business and preventing job growth. It would undermine the nation’s energy security by placing domestic resources out of reach at a time when the global competition for energy resources is rapidly increasing. And it would do so without justification, and without any tangible benefit that we can see beyond what is already accomplished by our well-established regulation of natural gas development.”

But the executive director of a group committed to preserving six Virginia counties’ rural characteristics said that city and county officials there support a horizontal drilling ban to protect their water supplies. “The northern Shenandoah Valley has not sought to embrace, and has no history of, intensive energy development on its rural lands,” said the Shenandoah Valley Network’s Kate Giese Wofford. “In fact, local governments have long supported rural economic development based on productive working farm and forest lands, and robust tourism and recreation sectors.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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