Jeremiah Knupp -- March 21st, 2011
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.