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Virginia Outdoors Foundation places moratorium on conservation easements that allow fracking

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation is taking a closer look at provisions allowing gas and oil exploration and extraction on land protected by its conservation easements.

The VOF Board of Trustees, in a closed session during its two-day meeting in Charlottesville last week, voted 5–1 to place a moratorium on approving any new easements with those provisions until after its next meeting in March.

“The staff was asked to continue educating the board on that,” VOF spokesman Jason McGarvey said Monday. “And some of the board members said they may want to tour some fracking sites” in Virginia.

The easements approved at last week’s meeting, and prior to that are not affected by the moratorium.

The board could revisit the issue during its June 2014 meeting.

The decision was praised by the Warrenton-based Piedmont Environmental Council, which last week publicly questioned whether hydraulic fracturing—a controversial method of extracting natural gas—is consistent with conservation easements.

Fracking is a drilling technique in which water, chemicals, sand and other fluids are injected into the ground to fracture gas-bearing deposits to make it easier to recover.

Conservation easements are contracts between landowners and land trusts that permanently prohibit most types of development.

“We’re very pleased that they’re going to take the time to take another hard look at this issue . . .,” Heather Richards, the PEC’s vice president of conservation and rural programs, said Monday.

“And we look forward to working with VOF engaging in a dialogue” with communities that would be affected, she said.

The concerns center around Texas-based Shore Exploration and Production Corp., which has secured leases on more than 80,000 acres in the Taylorsville basin east of Interstate 95 in the Northern neck and Middle Peninsula, where it wants to drill.

The VOF, Virginia’s largest conservation-easement holder, has 144 easements in the basin, including 21 in which owners have retained oil and gas rights.

The VOF’s standard conservation easement prohibits mining on or under the surface—including gas and oil exploration or extraction. But if a landowner wants to retain oil and gas rights, VOF accepts easements that allow limited oil and gas development.

McGarvey has said the VOF board worked with outside experts, community and conservation groups, representatives of the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy and others to come up with those provisions.

The nudge from the PEC, McGarvey said, helped move the VOF board to consider a moratorium. Some VOF board members want clarity on the existing policy, while two new board members want more information.

McGarvey says the oil and gas easement language “neither permits nor prohibits fracking” explicitly, and that any plan for that “has to come to us and be reviewed and that it meets all the criteria and all the conservation purposes on the property.” The PEC contends that those easements do permit fracking.

No drilling is imminent. A Shore Exploration and Production Corp. executive has said that’s 12 to 18 months off.

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431