Another episode in the contentious history of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the United States is playing out around Virginia’s George Washington National Forest. The Forest Service is currently considering permitting fracking in this pristine forest, which stretches along the rugged Appalachian Mountains. If the proposal is successful, it will be the first national forest in the country to allow high high-volume fracking within its protected borders.
Predictably, there is deep resistance from neighboring counties and towns. Fracking operations would flatten mountains for compressing stations, clear forested lands for pipelines, and inject massive volumes of undisclosed chemical cocktails into the ground. Local tourism and the intrinsic, unblemished, beauty of the forest would be damaged.
Even more disturbing is the fact that the proposed fracking would take place around the headwaters of the Potomac River. The Potomac is the exclusive source of water for thousands of Virginia residents, and for the entire metropolitan area of Washington, D.C. The recent water contamination incident in nearby West Virginia demonstrates the risks present when uncontrollable, chemically hazardous, industrial activity is allowed around water sources. In that case, chemicals used to wash coal contaminated the Elk River, leaving nine counties without useable tap water for four days. Fracking related contamination in the Potomac could leave the entirety of the greater Washington D.C. metropolitan area without water.
This threat has mobilized opposition from Virginia and D.C., including the District of Columbia’s mayor and Virginia’s congressional delegation. However, a powerful lobbying force and the potential economic rewards mean that the outcome of the proposal is uncertain.
This dispute is playing out in the broader context of a struggle around America’s pursuit of energy independence. Across the country there is substantial opposition to increasingly sophisticated, and yet inherently risky, fossil fuel extraction processes. Proponents of these practices tend to isolate each case. Their arguments also imply that opposition is motivated by self-interested NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) attitudes that deny the greater good of national energy security.
These arguments are accurate in asserting that the benefits are collective. However, so are the risks. This discussion demands a broader perspective that sees beyond isolated towns and counties. We must realize that America is our collective backyard, and all Americans our neighbors. This is a debate about how we treat our natural property, and the risks that we allow our countrymen to face.