Northern Neck Planning District Commission Holds Meeting on Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking)

A panel meeting concerning hydraulic fracturing (fracking) was held in the auditorium at Rappahannock Community College in Warsaw Wednesday, September 3, at 2pm. Jerry W. Davis, AICP, NNPDC Executive Director introduced the panel, consisting of Brentley Archer, President of the Virginia Oil & Gas Association, Richard A. Parrish, Senior Attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center, The Honorable Maurice Jones, Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade and The Honorable Molly Ward, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources. Davis commented on the “empty chair” at the table, explaining that he had expected a member of the Environmental Protection Agency to attend the meeting, but that they had decided to decline, declaring the issue to be one for the state and local governments to decide.

Davis introduced the topic of fracking by explaining what is meant by hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking. Fracking is the process of injecting liquid, usually water mixed with chemicals, at high pressure into wells so as to force open existing fissures and extract natural gas. In recent years, production has increased due to the fact that now horizontal drilling has greatly increased the amount of gas that can be extracted from a given area. Horizontal lines drilled this way can be a mile or more in length.

archerThe first member of the panel to speak was Brentley Archer, President of the Virginia Oil & Gas Association. Archer explained that he was not an engineer and would not talk about specific issues related to fracking; his presentation showed the revolution of hydraulic fracking and the introduction of horizontal drilling, which he said has produced incredible amounts of natural gas. He stated that the United States is currently producing 24 trillion feet of natural gas per year, which theoretically would heat 5 million homes for a period of 15 years. He mentioned that areas that have undergone fracking are reclaimed afterwards, and showed a picture of Southwestern Virginia which has been reclaimed with a thriving elk population. He concluded by saying that the issue of fracking needs to be a discussion that includes pros and cons of both positions rather than just people stating they are in favor or not.

parishThe next panel member, Richard A. Parrish, Senior Attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center, began by showing a map of the area, the Taylorsville Basin, which is currently under investigation for potential fracking. He explained that the State of Maryland has imposed a moratorium on hydraulic fracking awaiting studies due to concerns about possible toxic air emissions. Parrish said that the method currently being used in southwestern Virginia is coal bed methane extraction, and that while similar to the approach considered for the Tidewater area, in that it produces waste water and has the potential for also releasing naturally occurring toxins with the waste water; however, he added that the state of Virginia has almost no experience with high volume hydraulic method using water mixed with chemicals to extract gas. Although he conceded that the Department of Mines and Minerals (DMME) has reported no incidents associated with the production of gas using the fracking method, he believes further studies are needed before proceeding with the process in the Tidewater area. Parrish stated that the local communities need to be aware that there will be numerous wells in any location involved in the fracking process; that hundreds of huge trucks will be travelling on roads to and from the wells, bringing water and hauling away waste water, and that communities need to prepare for a heavy industrial activity in what is presently a largely rural area. pictured: top, a map of the Taylorsville Basin area; below, a map representing more than 84,000 acres with leases signed in the area since 2010.

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The Honorable Molly Ward, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources  spoke briefly. She mentioned tax credits are available for conservation easements which would protect areas from future hydraulic fracturing concerns.  She mentioned that there are only 3 1/2 years remaining in the McAuliffe governorship of Virginia and that permits were not likely to be submitted in that short time. Her main concern was water quality and availability, and she promised that protection of the aquifer was a high priority.

The Honorable Maurice Jones, Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade, addressed the subject by stating that there are currently no applications for drilling in the Tidewater Basin area, pending or otherwise. He stated that the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that was recently signed shows that the various governmental agencies in Virginia are working together to ensure that all issues will be addressed and that local input and advice will be considered. Jones reported that over 14,000 people in the area associated with the Taylorsville Basin commute daily for work, and that it was important to bring jobs to the area. He stated that what was needed was talent (workforce development), entrepreneurs, a good business climate, studies as to which type of businesses can thrive in the area and an infrastructure that can attract businesses, including broadband access, roads, airports and access to energy. He wants the local community to consider what that business will be, if not fracking.

The first sign of contention in the group attending the discussion came when Jones made the comment that he was sure that everyone present had economic growth as their priority. A majority of those present answered loudly, saying “No”! When asked to explain, various audience members stated that they were retired, that they had come into the area with the express desire to live in a rural area and loved things the way that they are now. Other questions that were presented to the panel included:

  1. Where does the water come from (for fracking)
  2. How do you clean it up afterwards?
  3. What else comes up with the waste water?

Archer addressed most of those concerns, stating that he was not an engineer, but that generally the water is trucked in and the waste water carried away to be disposed of underground, and that this is the way we currently dispose of hazardous waste in the United States. Parrish stated that the areas that have experience earthquakes are all in the areas where underground disposal is taking place.

A senior citizen in the audience then spoke about how he has lived in the area for over forty years, that he and many others in the area were happy to seek work elsewhere and commute so that they could come home at night to a rural area. He said that he and many others prefer things the way they are. A majority of those present appeared to agree with him.

Lancaster resident Albert Pollard questioned why no one was present from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The panel answered that the EPA was working on the completion of a study and they prefer not to release information at this time. It was stated that the EPA has indicated that they consider the issue of hydraulic fracking to be a state and local issue.

Ward assured other questioners that the issue of the aquifer is of the greatest concern, and she stated that local residents need to begin by educating themselves about the issues involved and to contact local government officials and the Attorney General with any questions or concerns. She reiterated that Governor McAuliffe will only be in office for 3 1/2 more years and that there are currently no applications for drilling on record, and that she does not expect to receive any applications while he is in office.

The meeting adjourned with the issue of hydraulic fracturing in Virginia described as one that local and community citizens need to be aware of in the coming years.

Download a pdf of the Memorandum of Agreement between The Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)

pictured, at top, from left: The Honorable Molly Ward, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources and The Honorable Maurice Jones, Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade . below: the empty chair that  Jerry W. Davis, AICP, NNPDC Executive Director, said represented the non-attendance of a representative of the EPA.

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