Wild Accusations from the Wilderness Society

As the U.S. Forest Service considers whether to include response shale development in a forest management plan for the George Washington National Forest, the Wilderness Society has just released a new report calling for a pre-emptive, all-out ban on such development. As you might assume, this appeal to ban drilling is based on misinformation and a complete distortion of the facts, which unfortunately received a rather uncritical forum in the Associated Press.

The report is essentially a repackaging of anti-fracking talking points, chief among them being the claim that hydraulic fracturing poses an inherent risk to the region’s water supplies. From the report:

“[Hydraulic fracturing] is a great concern to the 260,000 people of the Shenandoah Valley who get their water directly from the George Washington National Forest, and the 4.5 million people farther downstream in Washington and Richmond who rely on the forest’s clean, clear water from the forest.


“Fly-fishing for wild rainbow, brown, and native brook trout is a popular activity in the forest, but the extreme water use from fracking could threaten this pastime. Trout, especially the native brook trout, rely on only the cleanest water to live in – contamination from fracking could spell disaster for this iconic fish.”

This would be news to President Obama’s hand-picked Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell — the person whose job it is to protect our wildlife and natural resources — who recently said that hydraulic fracturing is “essential” and that it “can be done safely and responsibly.”  And just this week, when Ken Kopocis – President Obama’s nominee to be Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water – was asked in testimony before Congress if he was aware of any confirmed case of groundwater contamination from fracking, he replied: “No, I am not.”

These recent statements reaffirm the conclusions of other federal officials. Lisa Jackson, President Obama’s former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief, said last year that in “no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” Other officials from the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. Department of Energy have made similar conclusions. Dozens of state regulators – who have been overseeing the process for decades – have stated repeatedly that hydraulic fracturing does not pose a credible threat to groundwater. Independent researchers from MIT and Stanford, among many others, have also shown that the risk of water contamination from hydraulic fracturing is largely manufactured.

Meanwhile, decades of shale development in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan – an area known for iconic fisheries and exceptional water quality – have not produced “disaster” as the Wilderness Society is baselessly suggesting would happen in GWNF.

As for water use, you can read more here, but in sum: the amount of water required for hydraulic fracturing is a fraction of a percent of total demand. More water is required for activities like agriculture and irrigation, even car washes and golf courses! In Colorado, where available water is also often constrained, hydraulic fracturing accounts for less than one-tenth of one percent of the state’s total water demand. Average rainfall in Virginia, by the way, is two to three times larger than in Colorado.

The Wilderness Society doesn’t stop at water, though. It also alleges that hydraulic fracturing would “jeopardize” clean air, and by extension the recreational draw of the GWNF. Again, from the report:

“Fracking in the George Washington National Forest would jeopardize the air and water quality of the area, and threaten fishing, hunting, hiking, camping, and sustainable forest harvesting.”

The truth that opponents continue to ignore is that people are breathing cleaner air than they were just a few years ago precisely because of hydraulic fracturing and natural gas.  In Pennsylvania, thanks to the state’s increased development and use of natural gas, emissions of every kind have been reduced dramatically, and according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, over 500 million tons of emissions have been removed from the Commonwealth’s air because of natural gas.

Finally, the report rehashes the oft-repeated, totally misinformed argument that oil and gas producers are somehow the only industry in America not required to comply with federal law. More specifically:

“Hydraulic fracturing is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, and companies do not have to disclose what chemicals they are using in their fracking fluid.”

The truth is that no fewer than eight federal laws apply to shale development, including the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which has governed wastewater disposal wells for decades. SDWA was not designed (nor ever intended) to cover hydraulic fracturing, a process that is tightly regulated by the states. That regulatory setup, by the way, has won praise from even the EPA, whose water quality experts have repeatedly praised states for doing a “good job” of protecting water resources.

Furthermore, producers do disclose what’s in their fracking fluids on a nationwide searchable database called, which has proven to be a highly effective means of keeping the public informed. The Obama administration has praised Frac Focus, and nearly a dozen states use the database as part of their mandated disclosure systems. So when the Wilderness Society says companies “do not have to disclose what chemicals they are using,” the organization is making a demonstrably false statement.

Protecting and preserving our parks and forests are goals that everyone shares, and those who work in the oil and gas industry are members of the communities in which they operate. They have no interest in spoiling protected habitats or polluting the air, and they certainly aren’t itching to ruin a national forest.

But decisions on how to ensure critical protections are in place should be based on the facts, not convenient talking points that have been debunked time and again. Protecting the wilderness should begin with assessing risks and discussing how to manage those risks, including what protections are already in place. It doesn’t begin with carefully crafted report designed primarily to secure headlines.


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