While the country enjoys relatively stable energy prices, largely because of the increase in natural gas development, residents in parts of Virginia remain unsure how their communities will contribute to the supply.
But conservation, land trust and citizen groups are taking lessons learned from fracking educational campaigns in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and applying them to their work with Virginia’s Tidewater communities that lie atop the Taylorsville shale oil basin.
In 2010, a Texas gas developer sought a special use permit from Rockingham County in the Shenandoah Valley to drill into Marcellus Shale.
The Rockingham County Alliance, a local advocacy group with a decade of experience working with board supervisors, and a regional group, the Shenandoah Valley Network, encouraged the board to take a measured look at the potential impacts.
Megan Gallagher, former director of the valley network, said, “We had 10 days before the special use permit hearing to get information to the supervisors.”
Ten days was enough.
The board tabled the application and went to work. With the help of the conservation groups, they visited fracking sites in nearby West Virginia and explored their authority to regulate drilling. (In Virginia, a Dillon-rule state, the state legislature must authorize a locality’s authority for everything beyond basic land use decisions.)
Local officials learned that Virginia laws governing “modern drilling” (the use of horizontal drilling combined with hydraulic fracturing) provide little protection for local governments concerned about minimizing the impacts.
With concerns outweighing any potential benefits to the county, Rockingham officials never acted on the permit application, and four years later, the leases have expired and the Texas company is long gone.
Kim Sandum, director of RCA, said, “It really helped that we had already been at the table with our supervisors for many years.”
Education was key, Gallagher said. “We really focused on getting good information to the local elected officials and the citizens of the county.”
Meanwhile, in spring 2013, local newspapers reported that Shore Exploration, another Texas company, was planning to lease 100,000 acres of land atop the Taylorsville basin in Tidewater Virginia.
This caught the attention of Gallagher and others, including the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.
“The first thing we did was map all the leases, just as we had in the valley,” Gallagher said. “Then we approached the local groups, asking whether they wanted assistance.”
Since December 2013, local partners, Friends of the Rappahannock and Caroline Countryside Alliance, have hosted more than 25 informational meetings for local government decision-makers and the citizens they represent. Gallagher said that the local team members are respectful of the local governments. “They listen and respond to how the locals want to hear the information we have to share.”
“We have never painted this as a ban on fracking,” Gallagher said, “but all you get from leasing companies are sweeping statements about how everything is going to work out.” Impacts on roads, water supply and other infrastructure, she said, are rarely mentioned.
“We want to make sure the communities have the bigger picture because, eventually, they are going to have to make the decision about if — or where — to allow fracking to take place.”
Rick Parrish, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that the team of statewide conservation groups working with local partners has worked well. “We’ve been fortunate that there has been time to provide the needed information to local governments, who understandably have a lot of questions.”
Although Shore Exploration officials have said that they intend to start drilling as soon as 2015, the company has not applied for any permits to drill to date.
Virginia oil and gas laws require a permit from the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, as well as a ground-disturbing permit from the locality. In most cases, a special use permit is also required, which is why many local governments in the affected Tidewater counties are reviewing provisions of their land use plans and zoning ordinances.
Gallagher said that other conservation professionals have noted the cooperation between “the Taylorsville partners.”
“We’ve been told by seasoned Virginia conservation professionals that they’ve never seen such an effective working group — one in which the unique talents of each group meshed so well, and there is true collaboration.”
In June, DMME convened a rule-making advisory committee with a limited charge to review existing regulations regarding chemical disclosure, drilling best management practices and any considerations for different geographic areas in Virginia.
Special oil and gas regulations created in the 1990s for Tidewater Virginia, though, allow for an 18-month environmental impact study that would involve all of Virginia’s natural resources agencies — and precede the approval of any drilling permits in the region. The Taylorsville coalition hopes that Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe will call for this study soon.
Meanwhile, in the Shenandoah Valley and around Virginia, conservationists and local governments are waiting to hear if the U.S. Forest Service’s preferred alternative — which would not allow fracking in the national forest — will be included in the latest management plan for George Washington National Forest.
Since 2012, twelve local governments and the District of Columbia have passed resolutions against fracking in this national forest, which includes the headwaters of the Potomac and other rivers that provide drinking water for these communities. The forest plan, which was due to be issued in 2012, has been delayed while federal officials address concerns of stakeholders.
Tidewater Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley are places where, unlike southwestern Virginia, mineral and energy extraction are not a way of life. To make sure communities make the informed choices, said Sandum of the Rockingham County Alliance, “It’s important to be at the table before any drilling starts happening.”
Her advice is, “get involved early, and stay involved.” Conservation groups in Virginia are making sure that happens.