VA Tidewater communities educating themselves on fracking issues
Taylorsville Basin’s shale oil deposits raising interest, concerns.
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The Facebook page of Ruby Brabo, Dahlgren District’s county supervisor of King George County, VA, is all about communicating with her constituents: reminding them to “fall back” for the time change or reporting job postings or a minor school bus fender-bender that might delay their children’s getting home from school.
Brabo has also posted information about the number of leases sold by landowners in King George and counties to the east and south to Shore Exploration & Production Development Corp. of Dallas, TX, since 2011.
The leases convey mineral rights to deposits containing natural gas or oil that may lie 3,000–10,000 feet beneath their property in a geologic formation called the Taylorsville Basin.
Many believe that actual production drilling in the region will never take place because deposits may be inadequate for profitable extraction. But Brabo wants to make sure the community she represents understands the potential benefits and risks of gas and oil exploration and production should it come to pass.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Texaco and Exxon, with Shore Exploration as a partner, drilled test wells in the Taylorsville Basin, one of five Mesozoic basins in Virginia that have been assessed by the U.S. Geological Survey as having the potential for natural gas development.
At that time, there were plenty of other, easier and cheaper sources of gas and oil.
The outlook for the Taylorsville Basin changed with the commercial development of hydrofracking, the technique that is used to extract natural gas by fracturing shale gas layers deep underground with water, using a mixture of sand and chemicals.
The term fracking is often used interchangeably with hydrofracking. Fracking technology was developing in 1947, but it wasn’t until 1997 when George Mitchell successfully adapted the technique to break up shale rock and release gas and oil from shale formations that the recent boom in fracking commenced in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Fracking is also sometimes used to describe this high-pressure extraction system combined with “horizontal drilling” to distinguish it from traditional, vertical well drilling. When the drill has reached the depth at which fracking will occur, it can be directed horizontally along the strata to more effectively break up the rock formation along the planes of the gas-bearing strata.
Shore Exploration said that these subsurface features in the Taylorsville Basin, 3,000–14,000 deep, are ready to become a “play,” as gasmen call well fields that yield commercially profitable amounts.
To some who own land on Virginia’s Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula — the two most northern peninsulas that make up Virginia’s western shore of the Chesapeake Bay east of Fredericksburg — such a play could may mean a whole lot of money in the form of royalties.
This is one reason Shore Development has successfully purchased drilling rights to more than 80,000 acres in the counties of Essex, King George, King and Queen, Westmoreland, and Caroline. Nearly 50 percent of the leased total is in southern Caroline County, in the Mattaponi and Rappahannock rivers’ watersheds, important tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay.
A form of fracking using nitrogen gas in vertical wells has been used in more than 1,800 wells in southwest Virginia, according to the DMME, but none, so far, have used hydrofracking.
There is no history of energy development or production drilling for gas or oil in the coastal plain of Virginia, where agriculture, forestry and fisheries have tied people to the land and the Bay for centuries. Local rural economies are focused on these activities and, to an increasing degree, tourism.
While Shore Exploration is looking to develop the right mix of partnerships to proceed with production drilling in the Taylorsville Basin, others, like Brabo, are seeking lessons learned from other states and parts of Virginia that have faced similar circumstances.
Another county’s experience
In 2010, Houston-based energy company Carrizo (Marcellus) LLC secured a state permit to drill the first fracking well in the Marcellus Shale in Virginia, west of Harrisonburg in Rockingham County. The company needed a local zoning permit for the well, which was located in the floodplain of the headwaters of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, a drinking water source for two nearby towns. Carrizo had leased nearly 13,000 acres in the county since 2007.
“We were taken by surprise, really,” said Pablo Cuevas, the supervisor from Rockingham County. “We never imagined drilling in this county. We have a large Mennonite farming community that wants to keep their traditional way of life. We have the Coors brewery. They chose to locate here because of the quality of the water.”
Cuevas and his fellow supervisors decided they needed to do their homework. They tabled the special use permit request and got to work.
Cuevas discovered that there was no review required by the other state agencies he thought would have been involved, such as the Departments of Game and Inland Fisheries, and Environmental Quality.
He talked to the Department of Transportation, thinking they would be concerned about whether the roads in his county were designed for the heavy truck traffic that would come with the drilling industry.
Cuevas said, “I was surprised to find that all the company needed was a permit from the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, plus the special use permit that was part of our zoning ordinance.
“Then I learned that the company only had to post a $25,000 bond for any potential damages and that was only for restoration of the site, whether there are problems or not.”
To Cuevas, a retired mechanical contractor used to posting the value of the job he was responsible for, this didn’t make sense.
Cuevas and some of his county staff visited several counties in West Virginia, where the Marcellus shale gas boom has transformed communities, some for better, many for the worse. The impacts to the roads they saw in West Virginia were startling.
“We did not like what we saw,” Cuevas said. “We saw the way they were using the roads, great big tractor-trailer trucks hauling tons of sand and water.”
Kim Sandum of Harrisonburg was also on the trip to West Virginia. She’s executive director of the Rockingham Community Alliance for Preservation, a citizens group formed in the 1990s to help the county develop in ways that would maintain its rural heritage.
“The county,” Sandum said, “had spent 10 years trying to get the money together to repair the bridge and road that would have been the only way in and out of the property where the well was going to be drilled.”
Officials also learned that hydraulic fracturing requires high volumes of sand that produces silica dust that can lead to air quality problems. And the “hydro” part of hydrofracking means water – from 2 million to 8 million gallons per well — that must come from local streams or groundwater, or be trucked in.
“They were digging ponds to collect large amounts of water in the process, extracting the water out of some of the streams nearby; they just stuck a big old pipe in the stream,” Cuevas said.
Cuevas also consulted with experts at James Madison University in Harrisonburg about the chemicals used in fracking that end up in the wastewater. But he learned that many of them were unknown, and drilling companies were not required to disclose because of their “proprietary” nature. [See “Study lists significant negative impacts of gas drilling in MD,” April 2013]
“That’s OK if you want to have rights over something, but if you want to have those rights, you’d better tell me [the chemicals] if you want to play,” Cuevas said.
With the special use permit indefinitely tabled by the county board that was increasingly uncomfortable with what they were learning and citizen opposition growing, Carrizo eventually announced it was dropping the request and planned to allow all of its leases to expire by 2014.
Supervisor Cuevas is adamant that he is not “for or against fracking,” but he remains concerned at the lack of state oversight and the impacts to his county’s resources. “It was not presented right, and our questions have not been answered,” he said.
Rockingham County and nine other local governments passed resolutions in late 2010 and early 2011 asking the U.S. Forest Service not to permit fracking or horizontal drilling on the George Washington National Forest’s nearly one million acres in the Shenandoah Valley. A draft forest management plan released in 2011 contained a fracking ban, but it is uncertain if the final plan, due out early next year, will bar the practice.
Cuevas shared the Shenandoah Valley fracking story with King George supervisor Brabo when they met at a general meeting of the Virginia Association for Counties, an encounter also noted on Brabo’s Facebook page.
“I’ve been very grateful for the information that Pablo has shared with us. I am sharing it with our constituents…and with our state legislator,” Brabo said.
Rules for Tidewater drilling
Local governments in Tidewater Virginia are unlikely to be caught off guard by shale well development. Special provisions added to the Virginia Oil and Gas Act in the 1990s, when the last round of leasing and exploration took place in the Taylorsville Basin, call for much greater agency and public review in Tidewater Virginia than is required for non-Tidewater localities like Rockingham County.
In Tidewater Virginia — where the Taylorsville Basin exists — Virginia law prohibits drilling in the Chesapeake Bay or its tributaries, within 500 feet of waterways or wetlands, or in designated resource protection areas identified by each county’s comprehensive land use plan.
David Spears, state geologist of Virginia, explains that the law also requires a driller to provide an environmental impact statement to DMME for each gas or oil well permit application. The environmental impact assessment is reviewed by the DEQ and other state agencies. Public hearings are part of this process.
But, Spears said, “nothing has happened in the Taylorsville Basin for about 30 years, so we have no formal procedures in place.” Spears said that the DMME and the DEQ will be meeting in December to coordinate how they would handle the environmental assessment and permit review process.
Lewis Lawrence, executive director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District, said that though there has been a lot of activity in terms of
lease sales, “until the first test well goes in, it’s still in that speculative phase.” He added, “our local governments are probably not going to respond one way or the other until it looks like something for real is going to happen out there.”
But, Lawrence said, when the lease sales started and his agency started to review the planning tools available, “it was obvious that no one in this area was imagining oil and gas development when they wrote their land use laws.”
Lawrence’s agency is putting the information out there, especially when the opportunity presents itself, such as during comprehensive plan updates that the state requires every five years. “We will encourage the governments to start talking about how they want to handle gas and oil exploration in their communities.”
Lawrence said that these conversations are happening at the state level, too, especially through Virginia’s Coastal Zone Management program. “There are opportunities for economic growth on one side of the ledger. And on the other side of the ledger, we have to look at how we’ve got to protect the fragile coastal resources that we’ve got.”
All of the counties that lie atop the Taylorsville Basin are now part of the Virginia’s Groundwater Management Area. It was created so that the Coastal Plain aquifers — which supplies water for more than half a million people in eastern Virginia — can be managed as one system.
Scott Kudlas, who is responsible for coordinating water supply planning for the DEQ, knows as well as anyone that fracking is a thirsty industry.
Each well may be “fracked” multiple times during the process of extracting the natural gas, and each time may use from 200,000 to several million gallons of water. Currently, Virginia requires a permit to withdraw 300,000 or more gallons from groundwater over the course of a month, but regulations do not specifically address the cumulative use of groundwater resources for fracking.
Conservation groups in the Taylorsville Basin are working together to increase local understanding of oil and gas leasing, fracking and their potential impacts on the region. The regional Friends of the Rappahannock and the Caroline County Countryside Alliance scheduled workshops on Dec. 11 and 12 for elected officials and the general public.
John Tippett, Friends of the Rappahannock’s executive director, says his group is reaching out to everyone: “people who are concerned about landowners’ rights; people who are concerned about the environment; people who are considering leasing; people who have already signed leases. Everyone who has a stake in this.
“We want everybody that comes to the meeting to leave with the sense that they got a balanced perspective with regards to fracking,” Tippet said, “and that they feel educated enough to at least ask the right questions when the landsmen come to their door.”
Sandum’s advice to localities just starting to get informed about fracking is to carefully assess the near– and long-term impacts. She noted that “the industrial impacts on the community can be much greater than the small tax increase a locality may achieve.”
While Rockingham County’s experience revealed the possibility that Virginia localities may lack important tools for controlling their futures, it remains to be seen whether the communities in Tidewater Virginia will be able to guide a process that is appropriately cautious.
As Brabo said, “It’s not about being for or against. It’s just better for us to be educated now and understand and be prepared for any potential consequences.”
What happens in 2025?
In 2025, it is possible that all of the nutrient and sediment control actions outlined in state watershed implementation plans will be implemented. But it’s probable that much of the Bay will fall short of water quality standards because of lag times, which delay the beneficial effects of many pollution control efforts.
In that event, any portions of the Bay that fail to meet water quality standards will remain on the federal impaired waters list. Waters can only be removed from the so-called “dirty waters” list based on water quality monitoring — not the predicted future benefits of actions put in place.
As long as it is on that list, the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load would remain in place. But whether states would be asked to do more to attain standards, or be allowed to wait to see whether water quality goals are eventually met, is uncertain.
“I think it is really premature to say exactly what the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership would do in 2025,” said Jon Capacasa, director for water quality protection with EPA Region III.
Determining whether the Bay has met its water quality goals is not simply an “on/off proposition,” he said. In fact, the Bay TMDL is not a single TMDL but a compilation of individual TMDLs for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment covering 92 individual “segments” that make up the Bay and the tidal portions of its rivers. Some of those have better water quality than others.
Every two years, states are required to assess each tidal Bay segment to see whether they attain water quality standards and then file reports with the EPA. In the case of the Bay, the water quality standards are for specific levels of dissolved oxygen; for water clarity and underwater Bay grasses; and for chlorophyll a (a measure of algae).
“We are not waiting until 2025,” Capacasa said. “If a segment is meeting standards, it is taken off the list sooner than that. We fully expect to see more segments in attainment of water quality standards before 2025.”
But segments with the most severe water quality problems — particularly deep waters with chronic low oxygen problems or shallow water sites with very poor water clarity — would likely remain on the list until greater nutrient and sediment reductions are achieved.
Continued monitoring will help determine whether segments with the most stubborn problems are on the right track, Capacasa said. If not, he said, “Bay Program partners, as well as EPA, can take stock of what segments remain impaired and if there is anything more that we could be doing, or should be doing.”
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