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Originally published: 2014-07-16 09:56:09
Last modified: 2014-07-16 14:08:30

USFS doesn't rule out fracking in WNC forests

by Anna Oakes

The U.S. Forest Service acknowledged the potential for oil and gas exploration in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests in a July 11 statement.

"Some stakeholders have raised concerns about hydraulic fracturing and how it fits into revision of the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests management plan," USFS said in the release. "The potential for oil and gas exploration will be identified in the plan revision process in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management." 

The Nantahala and Pisgah national forests cover 1,600 square miles between Murphy and Boone, according to the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, based in Glendale Springs.

Nationwide, 5 million acres of Forest Service land is leased for oil, gas and mining operations, BREDL said.

Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," involves drilling a well vertically and then horizontally into the shale formation. The natural gas production company perforates the well and then pumps fracturing fluid (composed of 98 to 99.5 percent sand and water plus chemical additives) into the well under pressure to fracture the shale.

Fracking chemicals have generally been protected from public disclosure by federal and state laws on trade secrets, but environmentalists claim the mixture can include such toxic chemicals as formaldehyde, acetic acids, boric acids, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.

The N.C. General Assembly earlier this year approved a law setting Jan. 1, 2015, as the deadline for developing natural gas drilling regulations so that permits can be issued to developers.

The state is also in the process of studying the potential presence of shale gas in the Western North Carolina counties of Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain, with $550,000 allocated for the study, according to USFS and BREDL.

"In 2008, the Bureau of Land Management completed a 10-year forecast and did not predict any oil or gas wells, or surface disturbance," USFS said.

However, a document called the "Preliminary Need to Change the Existing Land Management Plan" for the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, dated March 4, 2014, indicated, "There is a need to update plan direction to address potential commercial oil, gas and hardrock mineral exploration and uses."

The March 12 notice of intent to revise the forest plans said, "No decision regarding oil and gas leasing availability will be made in the revised Forest Plan, though standards will be brought forward or developed that would serve as mitigations should an availability decision be necessary in the future."

In a column published earlier this month, BREDL Executive Director Lou Zeller urged concerned citizens to attend additional public meetings on forest plan revisions to voice their concerns.

He also noted that the leaders of Arlington County in Virginia passed a resolution calling upon the USFS to prohibit the use of horizontal fracturing in the George Washington National Forest, and Zeller encouraged other local governments to do the same.

Members of the public can send their forest plan revision comments to ncplanrevision@fs.fed.us.

Hard copies of comments can be mailed to: National Forests in North Carolina, Nantahala-Pisgah Plan Revision, 160 Zillicoa St. Suite A, Asheville, NC 28801.