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State is revising drilling guidelines

There’s currently no oil and natural gas drilling in Virginia’s Tidewater region, but state regulators are revising guidelines for environmental impact assessments, just in case.

Prepared by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the guidelines “establish criteria and procedures for preparing assessments for oil or gas well drilling operations, along with related production and transportation activities proposed to occur in Tidewater Virginia.”

Texas-based Shore Exploration and Production Corp. has signed leases with property owners on more than 84,000 acres in in the Taylorsville basin east and south of Fredericksburg.

Ed DeJarnette, the Shore chairman, said last week that no permit applications have been filed with the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy and none are imminent.

The guidelines are being revised to correct outdated references and conform to current state statutes, said Melissa Porterfield, who works for the agency’s regulatory affairs office. There are no changes to the requirements themselves.

Anyone applying for a drilling permit in the Tidewater area would have to submit an environmental impact assessment. The assessment would include state agency reviews and public comment.

The guidelines for the assessment describe procedures and equipment on site to contain spills of gas, oil and related products, other wastes, fluids and materials that could pose an environmental hazard.

The guidelines are technical and include dozens of definitions.

A “gas well,” for example, means “any well that produces or appears capable of producing a ratio of 6,000 cubic feet of gas or more to each barrel of oil ”

Several environmental groups have weighed in on the guidelines.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Southern Environmental Law Center, Shenandoah Valley Network and the Virginia Conservation Network, said collectively that oil and gas drilling would hamper efforts by localities to implement Virginia’s Watershed Implementation Plan for the Chesapeake Bay. The plan is a key component of federal and state efforts to clean up the bay by 2025.

The environmental groups want a baseline study of groundwater and surface waters prior to drilling; and a discussion of the cumulative impacts of gas development on the environment and communities.

The state has been monitoring the industry since gas and oil drilling began in Southwest Virginia in the 1940s. All of Virginia’s production is concentrated there.

In the 1980s, Shore partnered with Texaco and Exxon, drilling about a dozen test wells in Westmoreland, Caroline, King George and Essex counties, finding some natural gas and oil. But low oil prices and other factors ended the venture.

Newer technology, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, has made these reserves more attractive. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves drilling and injecting fluids underground at high pressures to fracture rocks, releasing oil and natural gas.

Under current law, drilling is not allowed in the Virginia portion of the bay or its tributaries, in bay preservation areas, or in resource-protection areas designated by localities.

Any drilling in the Taylorsville basin would have to be at least 500 feet from bay waters or tributaries.

Among the requirements:

Permission of affected property owners is needed for any directional drilling;

An oil discharge contingency plan, and proof of financial responsibility to implement the plan. That would have to be approved by the State Water Control Board.

Well casings would have to extend to a depth of at least 2,500 feet, or 300 feet below the deepest known groundwater.

No on-site disposal of drilling muds or contaminated fluids.

Read the guidelines: register.dls.vir The public comment period ends Tuesday.

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431