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Land trust may change policy on gas drilling

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation is taking yet another look at a policy that allows oil and gas drilling on some of its conservation easements.

In the wake of criticism by environmental groups in recent months that oil and gas drilling is incompatible with conservation easements, Virginia’s largest land trust held a forum in Fredericksburg on Thursday to gather information, with an eye toward some changes, said VOF Executive Director Brett Glymph.

“Admittedly, this is a challenging issue, one with a lot of information and divergent perspective, ” she told about 100 people gathered at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library headquarters downtown.

The panel included Mike Ward, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council, Kate Wofford, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Network and Renee Carey, executive director of the Northcentral cq Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Looming over the debate is the prospect of oil and gas drilling in the Taylorsville basin east of Interstate 95, where Texas-based Shore Exploration and Production Corp. has secured leases on more than 84,000 acres.

The basin runs through parts of the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula, including Westmoreland, Caroline and King George counties and Colonial Beach.

VOF has 144 easements in the basin, including 21 in which owners have retained oil and gas rights.

Both the Warrenton-based Piedmont Environmental Council and the Shenandoah Valley Network have said such provisions are incompatible with the conservation easements that perpetually protect land from most types of development.

Glymph said VOF revamped its policy in 2012 with the prospect of drilling on the horizon. Its board of trustees added new restrictions, such as the right to review oil and gas development plans.

“Even with these substantive improvements, some of our partners in the environmental community felt that the issue deserved further study, and that we should solicit more comment from the public. So we took additional time to hear from all of you, and this forum is the result of that request,” she said.

She noted that there’s currently no drilling on any easement land.

“Most VOF easements do not permit drilling of any kind,” she said.

“However, there have been occasions in the past when either the mineral rights have been previously severed, or landowners have requested to retain some [mineral] rights,” Glymph said.

But it was only done “where VOF was reasonably assured that such retention would not jeopardize the easement.” Allowing landowners to keep drilling rights, “is sometimes a necessary feature to close a transaction where landowners have requested it.”

VOF is not the only land trust grappling with the issue.

Carey, with the Northcentral Pennsylvania Conservatory, said about half of its 44 conservation easements allow for gas developmental leasing. Sixteen of those are nondevelopment leases, which means there can be no surface areas disturbed. That means no well pad, no compressor stations or other equipment, for example.

Early on, Carey said, the conservancy used an easement model borrowed from another conservancy that allowed for shallow gas wells.

One challenge, she said, is accommodating landowners who want to protect property in areas that are heavily leased for drilling.

“After a lot of conversation, this is what my board came down to: If we’re going to continue protecting the working farms and forests of Northcentral Pennsylvania, we’re going to have to figure out a way to work in the Marcellus Shale [area] because there’s not enough unleased land”

So the focus became what can be done on the surface—for example, seismic testing and how it’s conducted, well pads, roads, drilling times, waste-water handling, access, pipeline construction and the like.

Some of the conservation easements were signed after gas leases were signed.

But if the easement predates the lease, “we will require a surface agreement,” she said.

For a small land trust with limited staff, she said, the oil- and gas-related work is time-consuming. She estimated that took more than 100 hours of staff time between 2009 and 2013.

Charles H. Seilheimer Jr., chairman of VOF’s board of trustees, told a reporter during a break that, in hindsight, if he knew years ago what he knows now about fracking, he wouldn’t have been in favor of the drilling provisions in easements.

He hastened to add that because easements are forever, “we have to be so careful in what we’re doing.”

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431

rdennen@freelancestar.com

 

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