WASHINGTON -- A proposal to restrict natural gas production in a Virginia national forest has become a flash point in the debate over whether drilling endangers water -- in this case, water used by millions of people in the Washington region.
Managers of the water supply for the nation's capital and suburban Virginia are pushing the U.S. Forest Service to limit hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the George Washington National Forest, the largest national forest east of the Mississippi and home to headwaters of the Potomac and James rivers.
"We still don't have the science to inform the decision," said Jeanne Bailey, spokeswoman for Fairfax Water, which serves 1.7 million customers in Virginia and has an intake on the Potomac. Regulators should "wait on the research to make the decision," she said, before opening the forest to drilling.
The Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, proposed drilling limits in 2011, and now is reconsidering after gas companies said it was unwarranted and would set a bad precedent. A decision is expected later this year, and if the service sticks to its initial proposal, it would be the first time horizontal drilling into underground shale deposits had been banned in a national forest.
A surge in fracking in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia has created a financial windfall for some communities and pushed down natural gas prices. It also has drawn complaints from some homeowners who say their water has been contaminated. Industry groups say evidence has failed to establish that water contamination is tied to fracking.
Under the Forest Service proposal, fracking itself -- in which water, sand and chemicals are shot underground to free trapped gas -- would not be banned. Horizontal drilling would be, though, effectively prohibiting the most effective way to extract gas from the Marcellus shale that runs under part of the forest. Drillers could still use vertical wells, though they are less effective with shale. Private owners of mineral rights in the forest could still lease to drillers for horizontal drilling and fracking.
The George Washington National Forest, a portion of which is in West Virginia, is one of the most heavily visited because it is within a few hours drive of millions of residents. It also contains the headwaters of the Potomac and James rivers, and contributes to the drinking-water supplies of at least 30 communities from Washington to Richmond, Va., according to the Forest Service.
That fact drew support for the ban from the Washington Aqueduct, a part of the Army Corps of Engineers that supplies water to people in the capital and Arlington and Falls Church, Va.
Enough study "has been done and information has been published to give us great cause of concern about the potential for degradation of the quality of our raw water supply, as well as impact to the quantity of supply," Thomas Jacobus, general manager of the Washington Aqueduct, wrote in comments filed with the Forest Service in support of the ban.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service also support a prohibition on horizontal drilling.
Drillers say it would set a bad precedent for development in the Marcellus shale, the gas-rich formation that stretches under Eastern states including parts of Virginia.
"We saw it as an effort to prevent the development of the shale resource," Lee Fuller, vice president for government relations at the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said in an interview. "If you would adopt this premise as a matter of policy across the country, it would take significant opportunities" off the table, he said.
Neighboring communities and other federal officials have joined in urging the forest service not to ease off. Of the 53,000 comments submitted, 95 percent support a ban, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, which reviewed the public files.
"The George Washington National Forest is not appropriate for gas development, and all the impacts that come with that," law center lawyer Sarah Francisco said in an interview. Given its proximity to Washington and other metropolitan areas and its important fishing and hiking opportunities, "it's really a different situation than other forests."
The intensity of the fight over the forest belies its limited potential for extracting gas.
So far, no companies have applied to explore. While half of the forest's land sits atop Marcellus shale, Mr. Landgraf said it is on the eastern edge and lacks the liquid-rich deposits that producers favor at this time.