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Fracking takes center stage at Northern Neck panel

Posted on Thursday, September 4, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Jerry Davis, executive director of the Northern Neck Planning District Commission, characterized the Northern Neck’s economy to an audience of over 100 local residents and officials by using a few “f-words.”

They were farming, fishing, forestry and fun, “because tourism doesn’t start with an “F,’ Davis clarified to a few chuckles in the room.

“Now, we’re here to talk about fracking,” Davis said to the packed Lecture Hall at Warsaw’s Rappahannock Community College on Wednesday as the Northern Neck Chesapeake Bay Region Partnership-sponsored panel on fracking kicked into action.

Davis recapped the 84,000 acres of land leased by Shore Exploration for fracking purposes, as well as their intentions to sell those leases to another entity that would begin drilling explorations.

What is fracking?

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, combines vertical and horizontal drilling and injects chemicals into the underground shale formations to release the natural gas trapped inside the formations.

At issue is the possibility of exploratory gas and oil drilling taking place in the shale resources known as the Taylorsville Basin. Land has been leased for potential drilling in the counties of Caroline, Essex, King George, King and Queen and Westmoreland.

“Over the last eight meetings or longer, there have been many meetings and sessions throughout the region to help educate us all on what fracking is and what the implications may be if fracking occurs in the region,” Davis said. “Depending on who you ask, it’s going to be a financial windfall for landowners and communities, or an environmental Pandora’s Box.”

Members of the panel said that there are currently no permit applications for drilling in the Taylorsville Basin. It was added that while there is coal bed methane fracking in Southwest Virginia, and Shore Oil had previously said that technology could be utilized in the basin, the fracking process has not yet been confirmed.

Virginia reportedly has almost no experience with high-volume, hydraulic fracturing, which consists of pumping millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals down into the well to fracture the shale, and has unleashed the gas in the Marcellus Shale and other major shale deposits throughout the country.

The boom and bust cycle was also mentioned; gas wells begin to decline soon after they are drilled; while they may produce natural gas for 20-30 years, their production reportedly declines.


The panel

On the panel were four officials sitting at a table positioned in the front of the room. Five name plates lined the table: from right, they were Maurice Jones, the Virginia Secretary of Secretary of Commerce and Trade; Molly Ward, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources; Richard Parrish, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center; Brentley Archer, president of the Virginia Oil and Gas Association; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

No one sat behind the name plate at the far left.

“Previously, there’s been confusion and a lack of understanding [of] exactly what the federal role was in all of this,” Davis said, referring to EPA. “There’s been a perception, at least I’ve heard, that the oil and gas industry goes without regulation and accountability.

“We wanted to clear that up,” Davis added. “We wanted to understand exactly what the federal responsibility is in all of this, what regulations are in place to regulate the industry.”

Davis added that U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va) agreed with them that  an EPA representative was appropriate to have at the table, and that they should be part of the discussion.

Davis, however, said that talks culminated with EPA making the decision that they would not attend because “they consider this a state and local matter,” according to Davis.

“I think it sort of confirms what we’re seeing across the country in that … problems aren’t being addressed at the federal level,” Davis said.

Local government officials and public citizens and speak

Robert Pemberton, District 4 Supervisor of Richmond County, said he would be interested in knowing where potential drillers would get the 5 million gallons of water for hydraulic fracturing if that were to be the selected fracking process.

“Does that come out of the Potomac Aquifer?” Pemberton asked. “Also, what happens to 3 to 3.5 million that stays in the ground? How do you clean the [1.5 to 2 million] that you get back out? What else comes up besides gas? Those are the questions that people that live here want to know the answers to.”

Parrish said it varies from region to region as to where the water would originate and how the wastewater would be handled.

“I think there’s very little chance DEQ [the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality] would approve withdrawal of 5 million gallons from the Potomac Aquifer to use in fracking per well, if it is fracked as the Marcellus Shale is fracked, which remains to be seen,” Parrish said. “If they were going to use water to frack, they would likely have to truck it in, but perhaps they could withdraw a certain amount from the Rappahannock or the Potomac … it would have to be spelled out in a permit application if and when it is submitted.”

As for the fate of the water underground, Parrish said that a lot of it would stay underground, thousands of feet below the aquifer.

“There’s reasonable hope that it would not contaminate the aquifer,” Parrish said, adding that a lot of the wastewater is trucked away to underground injection facilities, which he noted had a correlation with the earthquakes that occurred at other sites throughout the country, but was not unique to the oil and gas industry.

Parrish said there won’t be any disposal wells in the Taylorsville Basin because of the Potomac Aquifer; the wastewater, he added, is not suitable for standard sewage treatment plants.

Chip Jones, vice chairman of the Northern Neck Soil & Water Conservation District’s Board of Directors and a resident of Westmoreland County, asked Ward about DEQ’s assessment of coastal aquifers in regards to drawdowns and recharge rates.

Ward said the issue is on “the front of our plates,” that they are reviewing permits in process to look at reducing use.

Jones said he had read that DEQ was estimating that in the next 15 years, the drawdown rate of the coastal aquifer is going to out-pace the recharge rate to the point that demand would exceed the aquifer’s supply.

Ward said there are very few users who utilize a majority of the water.

“By working with a relatively small group of users and finding alternative sources for them, we believe we can solve this problem, and that is what we are working on,” Ward said before addressing a point that Jones raised about economic development.

“That will be a primary concern … you’re not going to have an unlimited supply form the aquifer,” Ward said.

Applause erupted in particular for two speakers from the audience, both of whom are residents and representatives of Westmoreland County government boards.

Holly Harman, a member of the Westmoreland County Wetlands Board as well as the Northern Neck Tourism Council, said she had heard about the failures in some of the well casings, which she called “the only barrier we have from our water and a disastrous contamination.”

“This is very concerning to us out here on the Northern Neck,” Harman said. “You can’t go very far before you’re walking over a creek, a stream, a river, a pond, a lake, and all of that is what our heritage and culture is and has been since the beginning of our country.

“We feel that it’s imperative that our officials wake up from the oil and gas industry-induced trance, which I believe that is what has happened so far, and provide true leadership on this issue,” Harman said. “That means following the science, not the money.”

Westmoreland County Supervisor Rosemary Mahan told the audience that the meetings and discussions on fracking have been an educational ride for them and encouraged greater involvement from local government representatives who had not been attending the meetings.

To those audience members whose representatives did not attend, Mahan suggested that they call them and ask them why they didn’t.

What can localities do about fracking?

“There is a significant amount of authority held by local government- boards of supervisors, town councils- to prepare for this,” SELC Attorney Richard Parrish said.

Parrish referenced an earlier Attorney General opinion from former AG Ken Cuccinelli suggesting that local governments don’t have any authority to do anything except impose reasonable regulations on the siting location for gas wells.

Parrish countered by noting the Virginia Gas and Oil Act’s provision that says local authorities retain the right to impose land use ordinances on fracking activities. He said such ordinances could restrict fracking to certain times of day.

“Do you want it operating around the clock? Do you want hundreds of tanker trucks on the street the same time your school buses are?” Parrish said. “There are areas in West Virginia that no longer allow that.”

Parrish added there is a provision in state law that applies to drilling and fracking specifically in Tidewater Virginia, where the Taylorsville Basin is located, and requires drilling permit applicants to submit an environmental impact assessment with their application. The environmental impact assessment is then evaluated by state agencies and made available to the public for comments.

Parrish added that another state provision specific to the Tidewater Region prevents companies from drilling underground into the property of someone who did lease their land for fracking purposes without their express permission.

Are oil and gas prominent in the Taylorsville Basin?

Archer said that the Taylorsville Basin needs to be placed within the context of overall shale gas production in the United States.

He pointed to the Marcellus Shale formation, which covers 50,000 square miles with an estimated 410 trillion cubic feet of estimated reserves and a daily production of 15 billion cubic feet of natural gas. The Taylorsville Basin, on the other hand, has been estimated at a size of 1 trillion cubic feet and is limited to a fairly small geographic area, Archer said.

He added that none of the major producers are focused on the Taylorsville Basin because they don’t know for sure if there is natural gas in that area.

“But they do know that there is a ton of gas in Southwest Pennsylvania and in West Virginia and Ohio and Texas and Oklahoma, and that gas is attracting all of the capital and all of the investment and I think it will for some time,” Archer said. “From my industry knowledge, in terms of priority, there’s a lot better return on investment for people who are producing natural gas, and the plays where they know gas exists.”

From the state

Virginia Natural Resources Secretary Molly Ward said that Governor Terry McAuliffe recognizes the unique characteristics of the Taylorsville Basin and added that the Virginia Department of Education is “laser focused on the care and future of the aquifer, not just from fracking or drilling, but also from … overuse.”

“It’s on our radar, it’s something we’ve talked to the governor directly about, and it’s something that I will actually tell you keeps folks up at night,” Ward said. “We are concerned and know that this deserves the highest level of care and concern.”

Virginia Commerce and Trade Secretary Maurice Jones said that the Northern Neck needed to place the conversation of fracking within the larger dialogue of what the region is doing now to bring in jobs, growth and talented people, as well as keep them there.

“Right now, as you and I speak, 14,000 people from this region commute out of the region for work,” Jones said. “The question is what we’re going to do together to get jobs. That’s the bigger question that we’re wrestling with.

“If it’s not fracking, the need for energy, for industry, for business, for consumers … will persist until we solve that problem, and until we solve that problem, this net export of people … will continue to be a challenge,” Jones said. “What are we going to do to make sure we’ve got a healthy economy in the Northern Neck of Virginia for years to come?”

Jones also said that, with any drilling permit application that might come, they wanted to ensure that all issues are considered and that safety and the health of the environment is taken into account in addition to the economic benefits.

Ruby Brabo, Dahlgren District Supervisor of King George County, said she was “extremely shocked” to hear Jones say they would not recommend support for the state study to be conducted. She noted that the aquifer was the main source of water not just for King George, but other counties as well.

“I wouldn’t rule out a study forever,” Jones replied, noting he was just was not recommending such as a study at this time.

“If we think a study is prudent at some point, we’ll do that,” Jones said. “There a number of issues that we want to make sure we’re sensitive to.”

Josh Colwell, At-Large Planning Commissioner for King George County, said Jones’ comments about placing fracking within a larger conversation implied the concept that there are competing priorities.

“Your priority of Commerce and Trade may not be the same as Department of Natural Resources,”  Colwell said. “In terms of fracking, whose priority gets the highest priority?”

“The point I was making is: put this conversation in the entire conversation about how you grow this economy,” Jones said.

“Your priority is economic growth,” Colwell said, to which Jones replied by sharing his understanding that everyone’s priority is economic growth.

Several “No’s” resounded throughout the room.

“People don’t want jobs in this area?” Jones asked.

“They have jobs,” came one nearby response.

Joseph Swonk, 80, of Essex County, said he has lived in the area for 40 years, taught at Rappahannock Community College and had “hundreds and hundreds of students over those years,” said their parents are “perfectly willing to teach someplace else and work someplace else so that they can come home to a peaceful, quiet place to live.”

“It sounds to me like you want to make us into Petersburg or Fredericksburg,” Swonk said to Jones.

Jones clarified that he wasn’t there to push fracking and reiterated that they just needed to place the discussion of fracking within the larger discussion.

“As I look at the region, what I’m seeing is an opportunity for us to make sure we’re thinking about the health of this region for years to come,” Jones said. “Years to come.”