A Year Later, The Prospect of Fracking Remains

Jeremiah Knupp -- March 21st, 2011

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Turn west off of VA 259 onto Bergton Road and you drive into the far northwestern corner of Rockingham County. The narrow paved road winds you into a land of sheep pastures and chicken houses, hunting cabins and homes, rolling hills and wooded ridges that rise into the mountain that creates a skyline marking the border with West Virginia. Whether that skyline will someday feature a natural gas derrick is a question that remains unanswered.

The intersection of Crab Run Road with Bergton Road is near the site of a proposed natural gas well in western Rockingham County. Photo by Holly Marcus for hburgnews.com

 

In early 2010, plans to drill a natural gas well in Bergton brought Rockingham County into the national debate over the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (known as hydrofracking), a process that pumps fluid (a mixture of water, sand and chemicals, several million gallons in total) into the ground at high pressure to fracture rock and release trapped gas for extraction through a well. The Marcellus Shale formation that travels through a region that extends from New York to Tennessee is estimated to contain a large gas reserve. Carrizo (Marcellus) LLC, a Houston-based energy company, applied for a special use permit with Rockingham County to drill on a lease it owns in Bergton.

While the industry claims the process is safe, others maintain that the damaging effects of hydrofracking include ground and surface water pollution and lowered air quality.  Equally debated is the economic gain a community can expect from natural gas drilling. To some it brings a boon of jobs, industry and tax revenue. For others, the potential costs to repair damage to the environment and transportation infrastructure caused by the process outweigh any benefits.

The permit will allow the company to drill an exploratory well and then mount a hydrofracking operation if the well proves viable. The request immediately brought a firestorm of objections from members of the local community who voiced their objections at the permit’s public hearing. The county’s Board of Supervisors tabled the request at their Feb. 24 meeting to do more research on the process.

In August, with their request still on the table Carrizo unexpectedly announced that it had stopped “actively pursuing” the permit (“Energy Company Backs Off Gas Permit,” Daily News-Record, Aug. 31). Now, a year after the prospect of gas drilling captured local headlines, Carrizo’s request remains on hold.

Carrizo maintains it has no plans to pursue the special use permit in the near future.

“There’s really no point,” said Carrizo’s director of investor relations, Richard Hunter. “As a company we have to decide how to best allocate our resources. We faced very aggressive local push-back, especially compared to the welcome we received in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.”

“There would need to be an attitude change in the local population,” Hunter added, when asked what it would take for Carrizo to renew its interest in Rockingham County. “Frankly, local residents should be flipping out. They should approach local legislators and let them know ‘I own a 7-11. I own a hotel. I own a bulldozer and we want this here.’ It’s a loss of opportunity for those people.”

A natural gas well site in Wetzel County, W.Va. Sand trucks and trailers are on the left, with the fracturing pumps clustered around the center. Photo used by permission of www.marcellus-shale.us.

 

Following the initial tabling, the members of the Board of Supervisors spoke to local geologists, conservation groups and those in the energy industry and took a trip to Wetzel County, W.Va. to see the hydrofracking process first hand. At least two remain unconvinced that the process is safe enough for Rockingham County or that there are enough controls in place to hold a company accountable for the damage that it may cause when operating a gas well.

“You have to respect people’s property rights, but you have to ask yourself ‘How much are we hurting for revenue?’ before you approve a permit like this without considering the safety issues,” said Pablo Cuevas, the supervisor who represents District 1 in Rockingham County, which includes the area where the proposed drilling was to take place. “We need energy. We need gas. We need oil. But you’re dealing with a company that is a group of investors. They hire other companies to do the drilling and do the trucking. You have five or six companies working under contract, so the energy company has very little to lose if something goes wrong. I would not approve a permit under the current circumstances.”

“You don’t trade clean water for dollars,” stated Fred Eberly, county supervisor from District 5. “How do you un-contaminate water once it’s been contaminated?”

Carrizo stated that it has no plans to change its drilling procedures.

“Our process has not changed,” Hunter said. “It was established many years ago and we started by drilling in densely populated areas of Fort Worth [Texas]. We can’t refine the process.”

Although Carrizo’s was the first (and currently the only) attempt to use hydrofracking in Virginia the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) feels that the agency’s current standards are stringent enough to regulate hydrofracking. 

A natural gas drilling site in West Virginia with a square impoundment dam used to store the fluid that returns to the surface after hydrofracking. Photo used by permission of www.marcellus-shale.us.

 

“We believe that the existing requirements in Virginia, which are as strict or stricter than any other state’s, are up to the task of addressing this kind of well drilling process,” said DMME spokesman Mike Abbott.

Abbott stated that if Carrizo renews its request, the permit that DMME was prepared to issue would still be valid if the conditions of the original application were still current.

“The agency found their application to be technically complete, but we chose not to issue the permit while the company was still pursuing the special use permit through the county,” he said.

“We’re giving them [Carrizo] a chance to prove to us that the process is safe and answer our questions; to show us the data that proves that this all works,” Eberly said. “The ball is in the court of the people who want to drill.”

Local opposition groups, like the Community Alliance for Preservation (CAP), have urged local residents to not let their guard down.

“Citizens can contact their supervisors and express their opinion and stay vigilant for new proposals,” said CAP spokesperson Kim Sandum, who noted that many people in the community believe that hydrofracking is “old news.” “People need to learn about the process and be educated so that you can discuss the issue in an intelligent way when they speak to their supervisor or their neighbors.”

While the prospect of natural gas drilling in Rockingham County hangs in the balance, the process is already taking place in West Virginia. A permit has been issued for a well in Hardy County, less than a mile from the Rockingham County border.

“We will be drilling near the border at some point, but not in 2011,” Hunter said. “We have a good-sized position in Hardy County, right on the other side. When we drill the wells the people in Rockingham County will be able to see the derricks.”

Looking east downstream from where Bennett Run and Crab Run converge at the intersection of Crab Run Road with Bergton Road. The property of the proposed drilling site lies just west of these water sources. Photo by Holly Marcus for hburgnews.com

 

National Forest lands, which make up 140,000 acres in Rockingham County, are also open to gas drilling in a process that does not require the county to approve a special use permit. According to officials with the George Washington National Forest there are no gas leases currently held on National Forest lands in Rockingham County, although there are some in nearby Highland County.

The administration of the George Washington National Forest is currently revising its Management Plan, a document that will determine which areas, if any, are available for gas leases and hydrofracking. A draft of the plan will be announced mid-April, followed by a public comment period before it is approved this fall.

In Rockingham County nearly 15,000 acres (about 2.5 percent of the county’s total) have been leased for natural gas by six different companies. While most of these leases are in the northwest corner of the county, leases have been sold within a quarter mile of the town of Broadway and within half a mile of the city of Harrisonburg. There are also nearly 1,500 acres leased in two large plots near US 33 on Shenandoah Mountain, in close proximity to Skidmore Fork Lake, Harrisonburg’s water reservoir.

19 Responses to “A Year Later, The Prospect of Fracking Remains”

  1. The pressure to frack will be increasing in the near future. While the failure to pass any limits on carbon emissions has reduced somewhat the pressure for clean energy in the US, there is still pressure to move off very dirty coal. The disaster in Japan means that probably the nuclear alternative is off the table, even though nobody died at Three Mile Island and so far nobody has died of nuclear radiation at Fukushima (the thousands dead there are all due to the earthquake and related tsunami so far, although Fukushima #3 is still being very difficult). Even though I put solar panels for heating water on my roof recently, I do not see solar or wind seriously replacing oil as sources of electricity in the near future in the US (solar photovoltaic is expensive, and see the opposition of many environmentalists to wind around here).

    This means that natural gas is being as the cheap, safe, domestic alternative to coal, even though it still emits non-trivial amounts of CO2. So, especially as long as there is no great pressure to limit CO2, fear of nuclear will push us more towards gas than ever. This means more pressure to frack. So, who needs “drill, baby, drill,” looks more like “frack, baby, frack”!

  2. Alisha says:

    My parents live in WV, where there is a lot of this kind of drilling going on. I was talking to my mom about it, and she told me that it has generated very few jobs directly for people in her community. The company brings in Texans to do the work, rather than hiring locals. There’s a secondary boon to the economy, of course, because these folks stay in hotels and buy gas, but nothing compared to what the company insisted would happen.

    People there are really mad.

    • Renee says:

      Thanks for sharing this, good to know.

    • nancy says:

      I had wondered about that, & had suspected that what you reported is the true situation. It just makes sense. They are coming to take, for their own economic benefit. They are not concerned about providing the community with jobs. They have their own people with experience & work history, & they go well to well. It is unfair to hold out employment like a carrot on a stick.

  3. Bubby Hussein, Hillbilly Sheikh says:

    Wellhead gas prices continue to drop. There is a glut of natural gas worldwide.

    ““We believe that the existing requirements in Virginia, which are as strict or stricter than any other state’s, are up to the task of addressing this kind of well drilling process,” said DMME spokesman Mike Abbott.”
    –This is not true, Virginia does not have the financial responsibility requirements of most states (bonding $10,000 per well), has lax drill waste storage rules, no plan to dispose of the huge amount of drill brine. And there is no production fee to fund a Virginia cleanup fund when these carpet-baggers are done making a mess.

    Cuevas, and Eberly are right, Rockingham County needs financial assurance from drillers and producers. We will not “un-contaminate” our water after-the-fact.

    • nancy says:

      I wish more of Rockingham’s supervisors were equally concerned about the potential negative impacts on this section of the county. Water pollution can’t be undone. Areas can be destroyed by these companies, and property owners left surrounded by an industrial, possibly toxic, mess. If Carrizo is allowed to drill one test well, they will just keep on going and ruin this beautiful area. How will the neighbors of these sites be compensated for the lost value of their own property? DMME needs to pull its head out of the sand,and the state legislature needs to think in terms of protecting its constituency. We elected these people, didn’t we?

  4. bruce ritchie says:

    Energy that is used can almost never be ‘reused’ or ‘recycled’, therefore, the best savings is energy NOT used. The vast majority of energy is simply wasted, such as idling motors, water heaters that run 24 hrs., clothes driers that run while there is sunshine outside, and any number of stupidities that are built into our ‘lifestyles.’ Natural gas is mainly used for space heating, and savings can come from smaller spaces, insulation, lower temperatures, and just plain choosing to NOT heat every space that is little-occupied.
    It is unfortunate but true that many persons will not do those common-sense things unless compelled by their financial necessity. The low price of natural gas will just maintain our addiction to waste, and keep us from development of the good habits we should already be practicing. A person I spoke to of peak-oil and related issues said that when we run out of oil ‘ it will be a blessing.’ I am hopeful that he is right, but old habits die hard, and I fear for us all if we don’t begin to rework our habits soon.

  5. bruce ritchie says:

    Hunter doesn’t bother to mention the gas well already drilled up culler’s run, not two miles west of “paradise city” the strip joint on rt. 259. If we don’t watch out, even though there is no drilling yet in Virginia, they could send all their waste from WV and let us deal with it in our sewage treatment plants/rivers, or the drillings into our landfills. It happens like that in NY state, and they have a moratorium on drilling.
    When I hear the statement that Carrizo has little interest in Virginia drilling, then I am skeptical. I will believe it when their leases all run out without activity. In truth, if they are not interested, they will sell the leases to another company, and we have the same problem all over again.

  6. Renee says:

    Good article, thanks for the follow-up and additional info.

    The quotes from Hunter creep me out. Local residents should be “flipping out” to get a well and it’s a “loss of opportunity”? They’re acting like residents will come back to them begging for a well, but I’m so happy the whole process has been delayed here while we learn more.

    Also “We can’t refine the process.” ?? You can bet if they found a way to make more money, they’d “refine” their processes immediately.

    He also states “When we drill the wells the people in Rockingham County will be able to see the derricks.” like we’ll be staring at the wells getting jealous of those West Virginians getting wealthy on the other side. We’ll see about that.

    Scary that it’s so close to our water supplies.

  7. Renee says:

    Also, even though the wells are being drilled on the other side of the border, is it possible that damage can be done underground on “our side”?

    Those natural gas TV commercials intended to make us happy that fewer above-ground structures need to be put up since each one can now send down drills that can spread out horizontally underground actually make me feel worse about it. I want to know where those lines go and not have it be hidden from view from the surface!

  8. Bubby Hussein, Hillbilly Sheikh says:

    Virginia Law (The Virginia Gas and Oil Act of 1990) gives the State the power to compel reluctant property owners to allow gas production from their land through a practice called “forced pooling”. The State becomes an agent for the gas Corporation.

  9. Wendy Brubaker says:

    Please see the documentary “Gasland” by Josh Fox (available on line) if you have not already. Made in 2009-2010, it details the adverse effects fracking has had on rural environments from Texas to Colorado to Pennsylvania. The industry will dismiss it as hysterical, but the sheer volumes of resources and chemicals required to extract gas must make it unsustainable. Groundwater contamination is the worst effect, but air quality, animal habitat, noise and the inherently destructive quality of cracking open the earth are enough reasons to stop it in any community. I seriously hope this technology falls flat on its face soon, and it only will if people like the group featured here continue to stand up and fight it. I salute you! Wendy in California

  10. David Miller says:

    Although I’ve spent all of my free time in the garden recently I just wanted to take a second to thank everyone involved in getting this article researched and written. Its a true asset to the Valley to have in depth reporting on issues not covered by our “traditional” news sources. Thanks shining the light of good journalism on this issue.

  11. David Miller says:

    ugh, today’s DNR states that all but 1 of the proposals for the George Washington National Forest would allow for natural gas extraction. Totally unacceptable! How can anyone think that this is a good idea?

  12. stephanie says:

    This happened Tues. in Pennsylvania. A gas drilling accident and fracking fluid spill:

    http://www.wnep.com/wnep-brad-leroy-gas-drillingemergency20110420,0,1884646.story

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