The U.S. Forest Service is expected in June to end two years of wrangling over whether to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the George Washington National Forest.
Debate has raged about the issue since 2011, when the service initially proposed a 15-year moratorium on fracking in the swath of largely undeveloped wilderness stretching down the spines of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains in western Virginia.
Environmental groups say fracking risks water contamination and would threaten trees in the 1.1 million-acre forest. Opponents of the ban say domestic drilling promotes energy independence and provides jobs. Between the two poles sits the forest service.
"It has been one of the tougher decisions we have ever had to make, and I can see people coming from the framework of, 'We should not drill on the national forest,'" said forest service planning staff officer Ken Landgraf.
The forest is currently open for natural-gas leases.
Consideration of the ban is part of the forest service's effort to approve a revised plan -- essentially a management blueprint -- for the George Washington National Forest. The service last passed a revised plan for the forest in 1993. The proposal being weighed now covers some 900 pages.
"It's pretty far along and we can pretty well see where it's going, but nothing is final until the signature goes on the paper," Landgraf said. "There are still conversations going on."
The George Washington National Forest, which is home to 40 species of trees and 53 endangered species, according to its website, sits on rock that could contain vast wells of natural gas. Trouble is, that gas is buried thousands of feet beneath the canopy of more than 200,000 acres of old-growth forests.
Finding out if gas is there means clearing a few acres of forest, drilling down several thousand feet and then horizontally into shale formations and spraying pressurized water, sand and chemicals into the shale to free trapped gas. Fracking is the only means to determine whether there are gas reserves to exploit, experts say.
"There's no real way to tell from the surface. You do your homework the best you can, but they have drilled many, many a dry hole," said Thomas Biggs, professor of petrology, geomorphology and regional geology at the University of Virginia. "When you are dealing with this kind of well, and as deep as they are, the chances are you are going to get something."
Sarah Francisco, a senior attorney at the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center, said the practice could ravage the forest.
"The forest is a direct source of drinking water for about a quarter-million people in the Shenandoah Valley, and it is also in the watershed of the Potomac River and the James River," she said. "In total, the forest contributes to the drinking water supplies for 4.75 million people. It is really important that the streams that flow from the forest are as clean as possible."
Francisco said the fluid used in fracking can run off mountainsides into streams and rivers and leak from fractures underground into groundwater.
"Some of the fluid comes out of the ground as what is called 'flowback,' and it has to be disposed of. It picks up lots of very salty brines from underground, and it can pick up heavy metals and naturally occurring radioactive compounds," she said. "Treating that can have a lot of effects on surface waters."
In 2008, 303,000 liters of used hydraulic fracking fluid were applied to a half-acre of the Fernow Experimental Forest in West Virginia, according to a 2011 study authored by forest service researcher Mary Beth Adams. Within 10 days, the fluid had caused many of the trees in the area to prematurely drop their leaves. Two years later, the study said, more than half the trees in the area were dead.
"The larger point here is that the forest is not appropriate for large-scale natural gas drilling, period," Francisco said. "I think that is actually a very reasonable view, because there is no gas drilling on the forest right now, and there never has been."
Drilling in the forest could prove a boon for local economies, said Mike Ward, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council.
"It is the potential for spinoff jobs, domino effect-type of jobs -- trucking, food and other jobs," he said. "It can benefit our natural resource supplies from right here at home, and from places that maybe have not been accessed before."
According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Talladega National Forest in Alabama also could be fracked without a forest service ban. The federal government decided last year that Wayne National Forest, a 3,300-acre expanse of woods in Ohio, could be leased for fracking.
The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy shows 1,800 fracturing wells have been sunk in Southwest Virginia since the 1950s. Many of those sit in the Jefferson National Forest, which stretches across 22 counties. The department estimates that fracking wells in Virginia would need less fluid than in states such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania, because the Marcellus shale that holds the gas is thinner in the commonwealth than elsewhere.
UVa's Biggs and Chris Connors, head of the geology department at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, said fracking can be done relatively safely.
"Most aquifers are less than 1,000 feet, and most gas wells are more than 5,000 feet, and most of the time when you frack a well, you can't fracture more than a few hundred feet," Connors said.
Because fracking requires drilling through aquifers, Connors said, bore holes must be encased in concrete and steel.
"If you, for example, didn't have a good casing job, then [fracking fluid] could escape back up through the well and get into the water," Connors said. "But I think ... 1 million wells have been fracked in our country, and there aren't a lot of truly documented cases where you can show contamination."
Landgraf said that no matter the forest service's decision, drilling federally owned land is not easy.
"If I were a private company, I would much rather drill on private lands," he said. "There is just too much bureaucracy to go through."