Environmentalists urge Va. to begin crafting fracking rules

WASHINGTON – With a Texas company leading a charge to begin the controversial gas drilling practice known as hydraulic fracking in Virginia, environmentalists are calling for the state to adopt new drilling regulations.

“Virginia really has a golden opportunity. Modern shale gas drilling is not underway in this state in a significant way…(In other states) regulating the industry after the fact has been very challenging,” says Greg Buppert with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Late last month, Maryland rolled out proposed regulation revisions to address fracking. And in mid-November, the National Forest Service recently reached a compromise to protect much of the woods in the Taylorsville Basin, which stretches from east of Richmond up through Prince George’s County (Maryland), could hold up to 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. A Dallas energy company plans to tap into that basin by drilling on tens of thousands of leased acres south and east of Fredericksburg. And some local officials have expressed concerns about some of the chemicals used in fracking being injected into an area near the Chesapeake Bay.

To date, drilling for natural gas in Virginia has occurred only in the southwest Coalfields region of the state.

“This is something that we are concerned about,” Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward says of the state’s drinking water supply. “The coastal aquifer that exists in the Taylorsville Basin is responsible or important to over 50 percent of Virginians in terms of water, and the water quality there cannot be compromised, it would be devastating,” she explains.

“Shale gas drilling is, in terms of scale and magnitude, different than the conventional drilling that’s gone on in the past in Virginia. It involves a lot more water, and typically has a much bigger footprint on the land,” Buppert charges.

The companies that back fracking say the process is safe, and they have developed a number of ways to limit the risk that anything will go wrong.

“Under Virginia’s current regulations, wastewater – this is water that’s produced out of the well and may include fracking fluids, it also includes the brine that is trapped in the shale reservoir – that wastewater can be approved to be… sprayed around on the land to be disposed of,” Buppert says.

Hydraulic fracking is done by drilling wells down, then horizontally into the shale where gas is trapped. The gas is forced out by forcing a mix of water and chemicals down into the shale.

Ward says the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy will work together to keep a close eye on the potential for pollution.

“The concern really I think is long term, and not short term, if a permit came to the office today it could be in review for over two years,” Ward says.

“Right now, the company out of Texas…is not, to the best of our knowledge, a drilling company. So this would be a situation where the leases were flipped, and some other permitee would make an application to the state. So I see this as a problem that will exist for the next administration, or (the) administration beyond us,” she adds.

Municipalities play a role

State regulations govern the actual extraction process. But Ward says it may be local governments that have more control exactly where the wells are located and what operations are allowed above ground.

“I think there’s concerns about prohibiting certain activities in certain municipalities. But local government still has a huge amount of zoning authority that we believe could very much come into play,” Ward says.

Recently, the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy recommended that the chemicals used in fracking be disclosed, and that there be more water quality testing in areas that will have wells.

Buppert, the environmental advocate, does not believe that is enough.

“Most of the states that are dealing with this industry, have taken a much more comprehensive approach to regulating shale gas drilling, so their regulations include requirements for wastewater pits, they include requirements for important setbacks to keep wastewater pits and drilling rigs out of the 100-year flood plain.”

Maryland recently rolled out suggestions for new rules for fracking after years of study. It is not clear how closely incoming Republican Gov. Larry Hogan will follow the final, draft report.

“The existing regulations for oil and gas development in Maryland are out of date and unsuitable for horizontal drilling and high volume hydraulic fracturing,” the report, released Nov. 25, says.

It recommends monitoring for pollution, and more research into whether “best practices” that have been developed actually keep the public safe.

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