None of the counties in the Fredericksburg region, where a Texas company has leased land for possible oil or natural gas drilling, will become the first locality in Virginia to ban fracking.
Augusta County already has done it.
The Board of Supervisors in the Shenandoah Valley locality, about 100 miles west of Fredericksburg, voted Wednesday not to allow any extraction method that involves injecting water or chemicals deep underground to loosen trapped oil or gas.
Prohibited methods include fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing; horizontal drilling; and a technique known as enhanced recovery.
But the board didn’t curtail extraction altogether. There’s a lot of mining for iron and gravel, manganese and kaolin—a chalky substance used in paper, paint and china—around Augusta County, near Staunton and Waynesboro. Companies can continue to remove them from the ground, or drill for oil and gas, using traditional methods, according to the zoning ordinance.
They just can’t frack.
“We figured that fracking is the more concerning issue,” said Augusta Board of Supervisors Chairman Tracy Pyles Jr. “How it’s done, the water that it takes out, the water that it puts in, the disposal of water that they don’t even want to reveal what [chemicals are] in it, that offers a whole new level of concern.”
Augusta County is at the headwaters of the James and Shenandoah rivers, and protecting water quality has been a concern of local leaders for years, said Nancy Sorrells. She’s a former supervisor, or a “recovering” one, as she puts it.
“The thing that concerns the county the most is the threat to the water, and hydraulic fracturing is a huge threat,” she said. “Water is on every local leader’s mind in our area, it’s part of their thinking. No matter how conservative or how liberal they are, they’re all pro-water.”
Virginia is one of 21 states where fracking occurs, according to InsideClimate News. The not-for-profit news organization produces a map that shows how widespread fracking has become since it became commercially viable in the 1990s.
In Virginia, fracking occurs in the Southwestern part of the state where coal mining once prevailed. Almost 8,000 wells have been fracked without any water-contamination problems, according to the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.
The InsideClimate News map also shows states where localities have imposed a ban or moratorium. There’s no pushpin to represent Virginia, because Augusta County’s action is so recent.
But with Augusta’s action, the number of states with local bans in place has grown to 19. New York, Maryland, Vermont and Massachusetts legislatures also have imposed statewide bans or moratoria.
‘A FIGHT YOU CAN’T WIN’
In the Fredericksburg area, King George and Westmoreland counties are part of the Taylorsville basin, where 84,000 acres of land have been leased for possible drilling. The basin also includes Caroline, Essex and King and Queen counties, but King George and Westmoreland have been the first to address fracking ordinances.
King George officials voted in August to put severe restrictions in place, even though the majority of residents favored a ban. Citizen outcry against fracking has been even stronger in Westmoreland, where residents who gathered Feb. 15 expressed fears about earthquakes and damage to water supplies, destruction of roads and health concerns.
Officials in both counties have said they don’t want a target on their backs, to be the first in the state to ban fracking and then face legal action from the oil and gas industry.
The Virginia Petroleum Council threatened as much in late August as the King George supervisors deliberated. In a letter that looked like a legal brief, association lawyer Michael Ward said King George “may be exposed to costly and unnecessary litigation if it moves forward with the proposed amendments.”
King George imposed severe restrictions instead, and Westmoreland is considering the same. Its Board of Supervisors will accept comments on zoning changes during a March 15 public hearing.
Colonial Beach resident John Bangs said he supports the Planning Commission’s recommendation to impose severe restrictions on fracking instead of banning it altogether.
“I learned a long time ago, it is best not to pick a fight you can’t win,” said Bangs, a retired government employee who spent 15 years in defense. “Ban is too large a brush … and is a word the judicial system frowns on. To me, it would be better to regulate it with case-by-case land-use.”
‘BALANCE OF POWER’
In the wake of fracking, there’s been a conflict in “the balance of power” between states and localities throughout the United States, according to a 2014 report in Law360, a legal news service.
Long story short, localities can’t override the authority of their state. Some, like West Virginia, have made it illegal for localities to prohibit fracking, according to the Law360 report.
Others, like New York, put a moratorium in place for seven years while officials studied fracking. During that interim period, localities enacted bans of their own until New York imposed a statewide ban on fracking in 2015.
The Virginia Gas and Oil Act covers everything from coal mining to oil drilling, and industry representatives had stressed repeatedly that the state already has enough regulations in place. It doesn’t need localities to add more.
“Virginia has one of the country’s most comprehensive statutory and regulatory programs governing the production of natural gas and oil,” said David Clarke, a lawyer with the Virginia Oil and Gas Association.
His group is against any local ordinance that conflicts with state laws.
While the Virginia Gas and Oil Act says localities can’t impose conditions or licenses beyond what’s spelled out in the act, it also says the act doesn’t supersede local land-use ordinances. That’s the part Kristin Davis, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, has focused on as she’s addressed county officials.
She believes they’re best qualified to determine what happens in their communities, whether they put severe restrictions in place as King George did or prohibit fracking altogether, as Augusta did.
“Under Virginia law, they’re authorized to do that, to prohibit fracking or pass reasonable zoning ordinances to adjust those risks,” Davis said, “as long as they don’t conflict with state statutes.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425