Va. to review natural gas fracking rules

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RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia is looking anew at regulations governing hydraulic fracking for natural gas, a drilling method that spawned a gold rush for the energy resource in the United States and given rise to its own environmental movement.


The review comes ahead of a Dallas energy company’s plans to drill in tens of thousands of leased acres south and east of Fredericksburg. To date, drilling for natural gas in Virginia occurred only in the southwest Coalfields region of the state.


The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy assembled an advisory panel of state officials, an industry representative and others to review the state’s existing rules on fracking, as the process is informally called. Its first meeting is Wednesday in Richmond.


Michael A. Skiffington, the DMME’s program support manager, said the advisory panel will offer recommendations in several areas, including whether drilling companies should be required to disclose what chemicals they use to drill.


Panel members will also review best industry practices and whether additional requirements are needed for drilling in different regions of the state, Skiffington said.


Citing quickly evolving drilling methods, Skiffington said the department is reviewing its existing regulations to ensure they “provide for safe and environmentally sound natural gas production.”


Energy companies use sand, water and chemicals to free natural gas from a layer cake of rock and shale that previously couldn’t be reached by conventional drilling. The process opened drilling in the rich Marcellus shale deposit, which runs from upstate New York to West Virginia.


It has also raised questions about fracking’s environmental impact on water supplies and air quality.


Many drilling companies voluntarily disclose the contents of their fracking fluids, but critics contend they can avoid full disclosure by declaring certain chemicals or precise recipes as trade secrets.


DMME states on its website that fracking has been used in approximately 2,100 wells in southwest Virginia for a half century with no evidence of groundwater or surface water pollution.


But Glen Besa, Virginia director of the Sierra Club, said fracking for natural gas contributes to climate change because of methane released into the atmosphere through drilling. “We need to keep these fossil fuels in the ground,” he said.


Besa added, however, that if fracking is occurring in Virginia, updating existing rules is important to ensure the state is keeping abreast of new technologies in drilling.


The review also comes as interest grows in the Taylorsvillle Basin in eastern Virginia.


Containing an estimated 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the basin is beneath the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula along the Chesapeake Bay. It also extends into Maryland.


With an eye on tapping those reserves, Shore Oil and Exploration Corp. has leased approximately 84,000 acres in five counties in the Fredericksburg area: Caroline, Essex, King George, King and Queen and Westmoreland. The company said it hopes to start drilling by 2015.


Environmental groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and The Nature Conservancy have sounded the alarm about the prospect of drilling in an area snug to the Chesapeake Bay, which is amid a massive federally directed cleanup after years of pollution and neglect.


“Oil and/or gas drilling in Tidewater Virginia, if improperly conducted, poses a significant water quality threat to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries,” Ann F. Jennings, Virginia executive director of the bay protection group, wrote in a letter to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.


The area east of Interstate 95 already has more stringent regulations on fracking because of its proximity to water sources.


Nicole M. Rovner of The Nature Conservancy said the prospect of tapping the Taylorsville Basin has stirred strong interest. The conservancy backs the disclosure of ingredients used in “well stimulation,” she wrote in a letter to Skiffington.


“Indeed, we believe that the Gas and Oil Regulation should require oil and gas developers to publicly disclose the list of all chemicals injected for hydraulic fracturing,” wrote Rovner, director of state government regulations for the conservancy. She is one of nine members of the review panel set to meet Wednesday.


Mike Ward, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Counsel, said the industry supports efforts to update state regulations as necessary. “There’s always room for improvement,” he said.


Ward also he also sees no problem incorporating in any new rules FracFocus.org, where companies voluntarily disclose the contents of their fracking fluids.


“If that becomes part of the Virginia regulations, then that’s a good improvement,” he said.


In a letter to DMME from the Southern Environmental Law Center, representing an array of conservation groups, the state’s existing regulations are called inadequate.


It warns, “Virginia must not repeat the lessons learned during the drilling boom in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where the fast pace of development forced regulators to play catch up with the industry’s widespread impacts on the environment and communities. We have an important opportunity to insure that Virginia’s regulatory framework is amended before high-volume hydraulic fracturing is underway in the state.”


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