Ahead of the curve: lessons from the GW Forest win

In the early days of the shale gas and oil boom, communities were often caught off guard by the onslaught of activity. Geoscientist David Hughes sums up the phenomenon: the shale play lifecycle starts with “discovery followed by leasing frenzy.” 

Fortunately, many communities and organizations have caught up fast. Landowners who were “fleased” are educating others to avoid similar problems. Municipalities and states have passed hundreds of measures to restrict drilling. The health, environmental, and social risks of oil and gas development are being researched and documented.

Even better, some residents and local and regional groups quickly realized the importance of coming out swinging in their own defense. Virginia provides a key, inspiring example. 

Starting in 2010, Shenandoah Valley Network (SVN), Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), Virginia Organizing Project, and many others lost no time in fighting the first exploratory Marcellus Shale well and educating landowners about their rights and what to expect from drilling. They’re pushing the state to develop new regulations before fracking starts and launching water quality monitoring so operators can be held accountable for future pollution. 

Such foresight and hard work paid off in mid-November, when the US Forest Service decided to prohibit leasing and drilling in most of the George Washington (GW) National Forest. This decision means that pristine parts of the Forest—including essential wildlife habitat and water resources—will continue to be protected, and never become industrial sites. 

After three years of public education, organizing, and deft political strategizing around protection of the GW, SVN, SELC, and its partners met with success. Earthworks is proud to have contributed by mobilizing Washington DC residents, regional officials, and water suppliers to protest drilling in the GW because of the likely pollution of the Potomac River’s headwaters and the blow to public lands protection nationwide. 

Although areas of the GW Forest remain at risk (including those already under lease or subject to private mineral rights), the significant restrictions on drilling in the GW mean that conservation values can still rule the day—especially as the oil and gas industry steps up pressure to allow ever-more drilling everywhere.

Proactive organizing scored a major win in Virginia—and is proving vital elsewhere. In Maryland, Citizen Shale and other groups have delayed drilling and secured in-depth study of risks and regulations by a state commission. In New York, the de facto drilling moratorium has held for five years, while landowners standing up for their property rights have delayed the Constitution Pipeline. Organizers in New Jersey and New York have already secured more than 20 municipal resolutions against the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline project

Many frontline communities have been drilled and harmed for decades to satisfy energy demands, and never even had the chance to say no. With fracking now a familiar concept, a growing number of Americans opposing it, and louder calls for a clean energy future, more communities, in the eastern states and beyond, have the opportunity to avoid that fate—and stop the damage before it even starts.