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Fracking worries arise at conservation forum in city

The purpose of a Virginia Outdoors Foundation-sponsored forum in Fredericksburg last week was to look at whether oil and gas drilling should be allowed on land protected from other development by conservation easements. But looming over the five-hour session Thursday was the prospect of hydraulic fracturing coming to the Taylorsville basin south and east of Fredericksburg. Some conservation easements in the basin already allow drilling.

About 100 people turned out for the meeting, which featured panelist Mike Ward, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council. Ward gave an industry perspective on the controversial drilling technique, followed by a group of people asking questions and express concerns. Ward started with some background: Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was developed by energy conglomerate Halliburton in the 1940s. Water containing sand and chemicals, or gases such as nitrogen, are forced underground, fracturing deep rock formations, releasing gas and oil.

Fracked wells, he said, “have an environmental benefit” over conventional drilling because multiple wells are drilled at one location with a central platform and one road. Ward touched on royalties to landowners, well casing and deep-well depth to protect surface groundwater, along with state regulations.

Anyone getting a permit to drill “has got to follow the rules,” he said. Those include safeguards on well construction, managing wastewater used in the process, mitigating surface impacts and more.

“It’s not like anybody can go in there and just start drilling.”

And drilling in the Taylorsville basin, he added, would fall under stricter rules than the rest of the state because of its environmentally sensitive location in the Tidewater/Coastal Plain.

Some exploratory wells were drilled there in the 1980s, but there was no further interest in the basin until Texas-based Shore Exploration and Production Corp. began signing leases several years ago in King George, Caroline, Essex, Westmoreland and King and Queen counties. It now has leased drilling rights on more than 84,000 acres in those counties.

HIGH INTEREST

The prospect of fracking in the Taylorsville basin has been topic A in recent months, with workshops and public meetings held in Caroline and King George counties, and now Fredericksburg.

Some of those at Thursday’s forum declared their position before stepping up to the microphone. One woman carried a large sign saying, “No Fricking Fracking.”

Rappahannock County resident and author Larry Bud Meyer was wearing a button promoting his novel on fracking fiction, “Mother Fracker.”

Mary Trout of King George wanted to know where drilling water would come from. Groundwater protection has been high on residents’ lists of concerns, though the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, which regulates oil and gas production, has said there have been no impacts on water supplies in fracked wells in Southwest Virginia.

“That would depend on what the state permit would allow, where your well is, logistics from point A to point B,” Ward said, noting that it would be difficult to know, now, where any water source would be.

“I have serious concerns about [fracking] in the Tidewater area, and particularly with respect to any drilling in the groundwater aquifer” running under the river, said Hill Wellford, a lawyer who owns land along the Rappahannock River.

No drilling would be allowed within 500 feet of tributaries in Tidewater, according to state regulations.

“That’s not adequate protection,” Wellford said, moving on to another concern.

“The state [DMME] told me they had only about five people to come out and do investigations” of problems at well sites.

“That’s a very small group of people; it seems to me to be totally inadequate.”

POINTED WORDS

Essex County resident Matt Garrett asked Ward whether he knew of any damages the industry had paid out involving drilling in the booming Marcellus shale formation, which runs from northwestern Virginia through West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York.

“I don’t know,” Ward said. “If there had been a violation of the law, they have to pay.”

The exchange became heated, with Garrett at one point asking, “So the industry is not talking about damages that have occurred and citizens would want to know about?”

Ward shot back: “I think the [forum] today is about the Taylorsville basin in Virginia.”

At one point, Charles H. Seilheimer Jr., chairman of the VOF board of trustees, jumped in, admonishing those waiting to speak.

“We are not here to harangue Mr. Ward. We’re here to learn from him,” Seilheimer said. There was at least one proponent in the audience, including Shore Chairman Ed DeJarnette, who lives in Caroline County. “I’m very conscious about the environment in Virginia,” he said, and that there are oil and gas leases on his land and neighbors’ properties. “We’re very concerned about doing what makes the most sense environmentally, as well as economically.” DeJarnette addressed groundwater concerns, saying drillers could use nitrogen gas instead of water for fracking. “It makes a lot more sense to frack with something other than water.” Still, “Having said that, we are not in any way trying to foreclose options for a drill company that comes in and looks at what best would make sense,” he said. DMME would oversee any drilling, “and before we get a permit, we’ll have to have an environmental impact assessment,” DeJarnette said. Shore is handling the leases; it is looking for a drilling partner to do the actual drilling and production.

DeJarnette estimated it would take at least a year to secure a permit after an application is submitted.

“We’re not looking at anything happening in the near future.”

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