Virginia legislators modified a bill that would have banned all oil and gas drilling in the tidewater region. The bill now will allow drilling but with increased oversight by the Dept. of Environmental Quality and other provisions that would remove some of the associated risks.

Last Thursday, the Virginia senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources reviewed Senate Bill 48, sponsored by state senator Richard Stuart (R-28), and sent it forward to the full legislative body. It is likely to be passed with no further changes and sent to the General Assembly for consideration.

The amended version now clarifies the role of the Department of Environmental Quality in protecting “the state waters,” with respect to potential oil and gas development.

Ruby Brabo, a county supervisor from King George, spoke in favor of the bill as amended before the senate committee. Afterward, she told the Bay Journal, “I think it’s a good step forward in being proactive. If fracking is going to happen in the Northern Neck, at least it appears that an effort is being made to protect our resources.”

The Northern Neck and the Middle Peninsula are the two upper peninsulas of Virginia’s “western shore” of the Chesapeake, which lie above the Taylorsville Basin. Since 2011, landowners have leased mineral rights to a Texas-based development company interested in extracting natural gas deposits using hydraulic fracturing in conjunction with horizontal drilling. The deposits lie beneath the Potomac Aquifer, the drinking water source for all private, agricultural, commercial, and industrial uses in the region. See VA Tidewater communities educating themselves on fracking issues for more about the Taylorsville basin.

The revised bill would require that DEQ review regulations governing both surface water and groundwater quality and quantity in Tidewater Virginia and the Eastern Virginia Ground Water Management Area prior to any permit being issued for oil or gas drilling. In addition, the environmental impact assessment would go further to specify enivironmental risks. This review would be completed by December 1, 2014, with any amendments necessary being adopted by July 1, 2016.

The existing legislation only requires that DEQ serve in an advisory role to the Dept. of Mine, Minerals, and Energy in reviewing environmental assessments produced by the permit applicant. 

Earlier in the week, Brabo was at the Northern Neck Planning District Commission to hear a presentation from DMME about drilling. She said, “It was extremely disconcerting to me that, at this time, the DMME has no actual plan to address issues such as the depletion or contamination of our aquifers, nor do they have any funds set aside.”

Brabo, like many others who have attended various meetings in communities that sit atop the Taylorsville Basin, knows that there are no guarantees. “You can’t say 100% that nothing will ever happen; you always need to be proactive to always be prepared.”

While SB 48 would have created a ban on all drilling for oil and gas in the tidewater, “a total ban on fracking wasn’t really realistic,” said Rick Parrish, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. As Sen. Stuart told the Bay Journal, the bill he sponsored was designed to move the conversation forward and result in more oversight of gas exploration in the tidewater region.

Burt, Parrish said, “There are some very important and positive provisions that remain in the bill as amended, including DEQ’s strengthening of its regulatory oversight … and, in particular, that the permit applicant do some sampling of drinking water wells within a pretty wide radius of any proposed fracking well.”

Parrish explained, “If you look at the press around the industry elsewhere, there are huge controversies about well water contamination that occurs coincidentally when the wells are drilled and fracked.” When landowners lack baseline data, he said, “it gives the industry what is called ‘plausible deniability.’”

There is every indication that SB 48 will pass the full senate vote and then be considered by the Virginia House of Delegates sometime after “cross-over day,” on Feb. 11, the last day for each house to act on its own legislation. Passage by that house would send the bill for signature by Governor McAuliffe.

Assuming the bill becomes law, local governments in the region may still wish to address impacts of drilling for natural gas in their communities. Parrish explained, ”There [are] opportunities to work at the county level to put protections in place in advance of any sort of industrial development.”

Brabo agreed. “We definitely need to address our comprehensive plan and ordinances in order to protect the quality of life here that our citizens have come to appreciate.” Brabo listed some options. "Through setbacks; possibly through limiting to traffic on certain roads or during certain hours of operations," she said. "There’s a whole host of things that need to be considered.”

Brabo is well aware that she represents one district in one of the five counties in Tidewater that may be impacted by drilling for natural gas in the Taylorsville basin. “There needs to be collaboration regionally to ensure that we are all on the same page. That we are all working together to implement all necessary precautions.”

She then posed a reasonable question. What if neighboring counties are not in alignment? Lack of oversight in one county, she said, "could lead to a contamination of water supplies that would affect all of our localities.”

The regional approach may need to spread beyond the Taylorsville basin in Virginia. Metropolitan D.C-area governments and water authorities are becoming increasingly vocal on the risks to their water supplies that are derived from the headwaters of the Potomac River. The U.S. Forest Service is still considering whether gas and oil exploration and production will be allowed in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests where these headwaters originate.