Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Fracking in Virginia:

Fracking in Virginia: Report from Conservation Chair

VNPS Conservation Chair, Marcia Mabee Bell, attended a workshop on June 24 presented jointly by the Virginia Conservation Network and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. Fracking represents huge changes to our state, its economy, and its environmental health; all of Virginia’s citizens need to become informed about this issue. Here is Marcia’s report:

The main presenter was Rick Parrish of the Southern Environmental Law Center. He talked for an hour about fracking  already occurring in southwest Virginia, and throughout the mid-Atlantic region, as well as the potential for much more fracking in the Commonwealth.

gw forestHe covered the nature of the technology and its potential to deliver massive new amounts of natural gas, the impact it has on the environment and public health, the laws that are in place that protect the industry from liability, and laws on the books in Virginia that empower local jurisdictions to resist and regulate oil and gas drilling activity. Finally, he provided the audience with avenues for influencing the McAuliffe Administration to carefully evaluate fracking before permitting its growth into the George Washington National Forest and counties east of Fredericksburg, where a Texas oil and gas company owns leases on the Taylorsville Basin.

He urged people to write the Governor and ask him to request the Departments of Commerce and Trade and Natural Resources to conduct an in-depth study of the effects of fracking in Virginia. He said that such a study would take several years, slow things down, and potentially yield some actual, greatly needed data on the real environmental, public health, and economic impacts of fracking.

Following Mr. Parrish’s talk, segments from the documentary film  ‘Gaslands’ was shown,  providing a horrifying picture of what fracking does to people who do not own the mineral rights under their land. Next were brief comments from a representative of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters (VALCV) encouraging attendees to take action by:
1) urging Virginia’s Energy Council to dramatically increase renewable energy and energy efficiency in the Commonwealth:
2) following the Governor’s Climate Change Commission which will involve a series of public meetings
3) taking on-line action through VALCV’s website by urging the Governor to begin a multi-agency study of the impact fracking would have in the Taylorsville Basin:
The workshop is being offered at several other dates and locations in Virginia. Workshops will be held in Richmond, July 15; in Virginia Beach, July 31; in Norfolk, August 19; in Middleburg, September 9; in Fredericksburg, September 16; in Harrisonburg, September 23. Click here for details, scroll down for the workshops:

Key points made by Mr. Parrish:

  • While fracking has been known and done for 50 years, a new technique that utilizes millions of gallons of water, laced with chemicals to prevent bacteria growth, etc., and allows horizontal drilling far below the earth’s surface, has made extraction of natural gas in shale formations highly lucrative. The extreme pressure of the water in the well causes the shale to fracture thereby releasing the natural gas. The gas is captured at the surface and piped through to processing plants that may be hundreds, or even a thousand miles away.
  • Three such pipes have been proposed to run through the length of Virginia. The proposals are in response to an Request for Proposal, (RFP) from North Carolina’s Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas. These are large trunk lines that are 40 inches in diameter and cut a swath as wide as 100 feet through mountains, forests and farmland. Dominion Power’s pipeline runs from the fracking fields of West Virginia through Highland County, Augusta County, Nelson County, Buckingham County and south to the North Carolina border. Citizens all along the pipeline, including me, recently received certified letters telling us surveyors would be coming to our properties in July to conduct environmental and cultural surveys for the pipeline. In response to a question, Mr. Parrish held out little hope for these citizens to successfully oppose the pipeline since it inter-state and so regulated by the Federal government (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission).
  • The United States possesses the largest, richest shale formations in the world and, if exploited through fracking, stands to become largely energy independent in just a few short years. But it comes at an environmental and public health cost that has largely not been assessed, or even recognized. It may also add significantly to greenhouse gases even as dirty coal production diminishes
  • A single well, and a shale deposit often involves hundreds of wells, requires and utilizes the following resources:
2-8 million gallons of water
15,000 gallons of chemicals
200-600 tanker trucks of water that run to and from the site 24-7
20-25 truckloads of sand
500,000 to 2.5 million gallons of flowback waste water
The George Washington National Forest overlays the Marcellus Shale formation, the largest shale formation in North America. It is the watershed for the James and Potomac Rivers which supply drinking water to millions in Virginia. Oil and Gas companies want to frack in the GW National Forest.
Ten local governments near the GW National Forest have expressed concerns about fracking: Shenandoah, Rockingham, Augusta, Bath, Rockbridge, Botetourt counties, and the cities of Harrisburg, Staunton, Roanoke and Lynchburg.
The Taylorsville Basin underlies Caroline, King George, King and Queen, Essex and West Moreland counties. It’s shale formation is younger than Marcellus and so the fracking technique must involve using natural and propane gas rather than water to fracture the shale. This is extremely dangerous. A Texas oil and gas company holds leases on areas of the Taylorsville Basin.
Unlike properties in southwest Virginia, and West Virginia – traditional coal country – property owners on top of the Taylorsville Basin own their mineral rights. Many have refused payment from the Texas firm for their mineral rights. Currently, fracking in the Taylorsville Basin is on hold.
A 2004 study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that hydraulic fracking posed no risk to drinking water. In 2005, this study was used by the Bush Administration to justify enactment of the “Halliburton loophole,” which exempts hydraulic fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Other legislation also exempted the practice used in 90 percent of U.S. natural gas wells, from the Clean Water and Clean Air Act. Consequently, the EPA has no jurisdiction in even evaluating whether a fracking site is contaminating drinking water, despite serious health complaints from people living near, or on top of, fracking sites.
A 2011 Congressional report on the chemicals used in hydraulic fracking, states that the 14 leading hydraulic fracturing companies in the U.S. injected 10.2 million gallons of more than 650 products that contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or listed as hazardous air pollutants.
A key section of the regulations for the Virginia Oil and Gas Act states: “No county, city, or town or other political subdivision of the Commonwealth shall impose any condition, or require any other local license, permit, fee or bond which varies from or is in addition to the requirements of this chapter. However, no provision of this chapter shall be construed to limit or supersede the jurisdiction and requirements of . . . local land-use ordinances…”
Mr. Parrish believes this highlighted section of the Virginia code empowers local governments to resist and regulate oil and gas activity – they cannot regulate the drilling process by law, but they can impose land-use restrictions, he thinks, to good protective effect.
Fracking is already in Virginia and threatens to expand significantly into some of the most environmentally critical areas of the Commonwealth.  It is essential that Virginia’s citizens, especially members of the Virginia Native Plant Society, get informed, stay informed and take action to prevent harm to our natural resources and ourselves.
Marcia Mabee Bell
VNPS Conservation Chair