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Proposed state fracking review by private group concerns environmentalists

Proposed state fracking review by private group concerns environmentalists

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Groups that focus on clean water and the environment asked state officials for a thorough review of Virginia’s gas drilling regulations.

They’re not happy with the response: to have a private group associated with the gas and oil industry do it.

“There are many flaws to that approach,” wrote representatives from eight conservation groups to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

But the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy—the state agency that oversees oil and gas drilling—says the group it picked has representatives from other groups, such as Earthworks, which tracks risks from oil and gas pollution, and Trout Unlimited.

Also, DMME said the group it picked—the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations, or STRONGER—has gotten funding in the past from sources not affiliated with the oil and gas industry, said Bradley Lambert, DMME’s deputy director.

STRONGER also looked over Virginia’s gas and oil regulations in 2004, and “this is, in part, a follow-up to that review,” Lambert said.

As has often happened in the discussion of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” the debate seems to fall along two lines. Those with concerns about health, water and public safety are on one side, while industry officials, as well as the DMME that oversees the activity, are on the other.

Ruby Brabo, chairwoman of the King George County Board of Supervisors, also has joined in the discussion. She recently met with some of the conservation groups, who expressed concerns to DMME officials and Secretary of Commerce and Trade Maurice Jones.

She told Jones the state had the chance to do a comprehensive review of oil and gas regulations in 2014, when the DMME put together a Regulatory Advisory Panel. The group consisted of representatives from state health agencies and local government, the gas and oil industry and conservation groups.

“That was the perfect opportunity, when you had everybody at the table,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense what they’re trying to do now.”

INTEREST ‘RAMPING UP’

The request for a comprehensive review came about as fracking prospects have been “ramping up” throughout the state, said Kate Addleson, conservation director with the Virginia Sierra Club.

Fracking is the process of injecting water and chemicals deep into the ground to release trapped oil and gas. Companies have leased land in the Shenandoah Valley for drilling, as well as 84,000 acres south and east of Fredericksburg in what’s known as the Taylorsville basin.

A lot has changed in terms of technology and terrain considered for fracking since the last review, Addleson and others noted in their letter to the governor. Groups represented include Clean Water Action, Virginia Organizing and those associated with the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

“As evidence mounts of serious health and other adverse impacts from fracking, Virginia must do its own thorough regulatory review and do so in a matter that considers all the relevant health, safety and environmental issues,” stated the letter.

The environmental groups suggested that STRONGER wasn’t the right agency to do the review because it’s heavily influenced by the oil and gas industry.

Secretary Jones pointed out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy provided grant funding to STRONGER in the past.

But the environmental groups that have been calling for a review say that’s no longer the case.

“Our research indicates that STRONGER is now entirely funded by the American Petroleum Institute and other petroleum industry supporters,” stated the letter from Addleson and others.

‘HOW IS THAT FAIR?’

STRONGER will conduct its review of Virginia regulations Aug. 8–11 at its offices in Lebanon, in southwestern Virginia.

Afterwards, DMME and the Governor’s Office will review the report and take appropriate action, Lambert said.

The recommendations aren’t the only ones the state agency is dealing with, regarding gas and oil drilling. The agency is still in the midst of drafting final regulations, based on recommendations the Regulatory Advisory Panel made. That group finished meeting more than 18 months ago.

Eric Gregory, King George’s County Attorney, was on the panel. Supervisor Brabo said the panel had to work “with one hand tied behind their back” because the DMME didn’t allow them to debate all of the regulations regarding oil and gas drilling, just certain ones.

“Now, you’re going to have a comprehensive review done by a group that’s fully funded by the oil industry?” Brabo asked. “How is that fair, unbiased and transparent?”

Jones asked Brabo and the environmentalists to provide information on regulations and policies in other states, such as Colorado, where fracking is allowed, and New York, where there’s a moratorium.

Brabo also plans to seek input from King George residents about the county’s next move in terms of fracking at a town hall meeting Tuesday at Two Rivers Baptist Church, 6420 Rokeby Lane.

In 2015, the county discussed regulations that wouldn’t ban fracking outright, but would limit the practice to the point that drillers probably would go elsewhere. The ordinance was never adopted because the county wanted to wait until DMME finished reviewing its policies.

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

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