Local Governments Must Take Their Time on Fracking
Guest Column in Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star co-authored by Greg Buppert, Staff Attorney at SELC, and Richard Moncure, Rappahannock River Steward at Friends of the Rappahannock.
For anyone who lives on the northern neck or middle peninsula, you understand the beauty and value of this region: its working farms, its rivers, the Chesapeake Bay, and the scenic, tranquil, nature of its historic, close-knit communities. But under these rural communities and farms is an ancient lakebed known as the Taylorsville Basin. The potential for natural gas in this lakebed has attracted the attention of a Texas-based drilling company. Shore Exploration has signed thousands of acres of drilling leases here since 2010. But getting the gas out of the rocks under our homes and farms won’t be an easy job. It will require a new industrial landscape that this pastoral region hasn’t seen before.
As representatives of conservation groups that care about this region, we are concerned about the risks that industrial drilling poses to local communities and farms. We understand that natural gas is currently a part of our national energy supply, but anyone who says we shouldn’t be concerned about fracking is ignoring the experiences of other shale gas communities. Yes, there have been some benefits, but there have been lots of costs as well.
Let’s start with facts. Shale gas drilling has been conclusively linked to polluted water wells. A 2013 Duke University study found that the closer you lived to a drilling operation in Pennsylvania, the more likely you were to have drinking water contaminated with methane and ethane. The likely culprit for the contamination: failed well casings. Also in Pennsylvania, officials confirmed that gas and oil drilling activities were to blame for contaminating or diminishing the flow to 209 water supplies in 77 different communities throughout the state since 2008. In some cases, water wells contained explosive levels of gas.
Spills of fracking fluids and wastewater can also pollute streams and groundwater. A recent rig blowout at a Pennsylvania drilling site spilled more 200,000 gallons of fracking fluids and prompted the evacuation of nearby homes. Other spills have caused fish kills and contaminated the Susquehanna River.
We also know that shale gas drilling is causing local air pollution, including large emissions of methane and known carcinogens like benzene. According to the EPA, remote well-fields in Wyoming have air quality similar to L.A., and a new study from the State of Maryland concluded that air pollution caused by drilling operations would pose a high risk for public health.
Maybe, as the industry claims, some of these impacts will be reduced if fracking is done with nitrogen instead of gas. Modern shale gas extraction is a significant industrial activity with a big footprint, no matter how it is done. It requires land clearing for well pads, gas flaring, compressor stations, access roads, and pipelines. It generates noise and can produce millions of gallons of contaminated water. It requires hundreds of heavy truck trips that can pulverize rural roads and hold up traffic.
Unfortunately, federal and state laws aren’t adequate to protect rural communities and farms throughout this region from these risks. Fracking is exempt from important parts of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. And while Virginia does have experience with fracking, it's almost all in the coalbed methane fields of southwest Virginia under very different conditions. Our state regulations were written before the shale gas boom and don't address important things, like siting restrictions for wells or wastewater pits, and they allow practices that simply aren't appropriate, like letting drillers spray their fracking wastewater on the ground.
The good news is that local land use ordinances can fill many of the gaps left in federal and state laws. They provide an important tool for communities to avoid or minimize the harms caused by this industry. How close can drilling occur to schools, churches, playgrounds, parks, or rivers? Can tanker trucks use rural roads or go through residential or business districts at any time of night or day? Will localities impose their own bond requirements to ensure that damage is restored if an accident occurs? These are types of questions that many local governments in the region are grappling with right now.
A community discussion focused on developing carefully crafted ordinances lets localities grow in the way they see fit. When the wells are capped and the rigs and workers have gone off to other fields, the people on the Northern Neck and the Middle Peninsula will need to rely on the natural amenities that define the character of their region and support their economy, including productive farmland, clean water, and proximity to the Bay. An investment in land use planning now can ensure that this region is the same desirable place to live, work, and raise a family in the future.
After all, the gas has been down there a long, long time. Taking our time and getting this right before any drilling begins is really a small thing to ask.