By Elena Day
It’s boom times–and dollars—for the energy companies. Instead of moving quickly to develop renewable technologies and implement conservation and energy efficiency, U.S. oil companies are extracting oil and natural gas anywhere they can.
Fracking is being promoted as the answer to the U.S. quest for energy independence. Its negative social and environmental costs are left for the public to discover, and once they are known we will still have to push local, state and national officials to implement protections. Lately there has been a big push to develop more natural gas wells so that our natural gas can also be sold and burned overseas.
Fracking may be coming to Virginia’s Tidewater unless communities gather their collective energies to oppose it.
Exploration for natural gas occurred in the Taylorsville Basin (one of 5 Mesozoic basins in Virginia) in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Exxon, Texaco and Shore Exploration. The Taylorsville Basin parallels and lies largely to the east of Rt. 301 through Maryland and Virginia and narrows as it continues to Richmond and Petersburg.
Test wells indicated that the basin could yield commercially profitable amounts of natural gas. Shore Exploration commenced buying up drilling rights and currently owns drilling rights on 80,000 acres in King George, King and Queen, Essex, Caroline and Westmoreland Counties. 50 percent of the leases are in Caroline County, which is in the watershed of the Rappahannock and Mattaponi Rivers. The other counties are in the watersheds of the Potomac and York Rivers. All are major tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. (The Mattaponi is the most pristine tidal river and the best shad fishery in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. In 2009, after 13 years, a coalition of environmental groups and the Mattaponi Indian Tribe convinced a federal judge to deny Newport News permits to create the King William Reservoir, which would have destroyed 400 acres of wetlands. The reservoir had the backing of powerful politicians like Sen. John Warner and Virginia land developers and was okayed by the State Water Control Board and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.)
Although fracking was being developed in the late 1940s, the fracking boom didn’t begin until 1997, when the technique was adapted to break up shale rock and release the gas and oil therein. West Virginia and Pennsylvania were first to experience the new fracking method, which is also referred to as hydrofracking.
Hydrofracking is a high-pressure extraction system that uses from 2 to 8 million gallons of water per well, large amounts of sand and a secret, “proprietary” mix of chemicals. It combines traditional vertical drilling with horizontal drilling. When the depth of the gas-bearing strata is reached, horizontal drilling is employed to more effectively break up the shale to release the natural gas and oil. The large quantities of water needed come from local streams or groundwater.
The chemical mix is secret thanks to the efforts of Dick Cheney. Halliburton, Cheney’s former employer, wanted to expand into the natural gas industry. In 2005 Vice President Cheney successfully lobbied Congress to exempt the natural gas industry from the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Superfund Act, the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The Environmental Protection Agency can neither regulate the poisons that fracking delivers into our water nor is it privy to the industry mix of these toxic pollutants.
Agriculture, forestry and fisheries are the mainstay of the rural counties in eastern Virginia. Shore Exploration has determined that the Taylorsville Basin is ready to become a “play,” a term used to indicate that a shale formation will be profitable if fracked.
“Playing” around with water resources can be disastrous, but that’s what has been happening for the last 15 years. Today 15.3 million Americans live within a mile of a well that has been drilled since 2000. Johnson County, Texas, has 3,900 wells and 99.5 percent of its population of 150,000 lives within a mile of a well.
The Bakken/Three Forks oil field in North Dakota is the largest in the world. In square miles it is approximately the size of West Virginia. When a friend took a night flight west to Arizona, the pilot pointed out the lights of Bakken. Natural gas that is not captured is routinely flared or burned so that the methane extracted is turned into CO2. They say this is because CO2 contributes less than methane to global warming.
Derailments of oil/natural gas shipments are becoming more frequent. Note the recent derailment and fire in Lynchburg. In Pennsylvania, forests are increasingly fragmented by natural gas pipelines. Pipeline clearings create migration barriers for small mammals and amphibians and openings for invasive species. And of course a bucolic hamlet is quickly ruined by the infrastructure of fracking. Rural roadways are inadequate for heavy equipment and large trucks. Fracking workers are not generally locals. Boom and bust technologies rarely enrich the local economy. Farming communities end up with sickened/dead cows and methane, plastics, and toxic chemicals used to frack the wells in their groundwater.
France and Bulgaria (both countries have extensive natural gas reserves) have banned fracking.
Closer to home, Rockingham County tabled a request for rezoning that would have allowed Carrizo, LLC, a Texas company, to frack in the floodplain of the headwaters of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. Carrizo had leased 13,000 acres in Rockingham. The river was the source of drinking water for two nearby towns.
Coors had located in the Valley because of the water quality. Rockingham supervisors visited fracking sites in West Virginia and didn’t like what they saw—heavy trucks hauling sand and water on rural roads and air pollution from the large quantities of sand/silica used in fracking. They visited a number of counties where a few towns had been transformed for the better, but most were worse off. In late 2010 and early 2011 Rockingham and nine other local governments passed a resolution asking the U.S. Forest Service to deny fracking permits on the 1 million acres of the George Washington National Forest in the Shenandoah Valley. This year the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, the Washington Aqueduct, and the Fairfax County Water Authority passed resolutions against fracking in the GW Forest. The D.C. City Council followed with an anti-fracking resolution in March.
The price of democracy is citizen vigilance. Frackers currently have a friend in President Obama. He and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are poised to permit the Cove Point, Maryland, liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility on the Chesapeake Bay. Twenty such complexes have been proposed on our coasts to facilitate overseas exports. This means more pipelines and more rail shipments.
Environmentalists and “fractivists” will gather in D.C. Sunday, July 13, from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. to oppose permitting Cove Point. If Cove Point is permitted, it will accelerate fracking from Colorado to West Virginia. We can expect more water and air pollution, and more methane/CO2 vented into our warming atmosphere. Development of renewables and energy-efficient fixes will once again languish.