The Shenandoah Valley-Herald: Citizen Group Discusses Potential Impact Of Natural Gas Extraction
July 21, 2010-Though “Hydrofracking” A Hot Issue In Rockingham, Restrictive Zoning Ordinance In Shenandoah Co. Discourages Local Gas Exploration.
Last February, after a Houston company called Carrizo (Marcellus) LLC filed a special use permit application to drill a natural gas well in northwestern Rockingham County, a group of citizens united to raise concerns about that drilling’s potential to damage the environment.
Now, as that permit remains pending in Rockingham County, residents of an adjacent portion of Shenandoah County have begun meeting to educate themselves and raise awareness about the issue. The group first met last week, with nearly a dozen people who live on Supinlick Ridge in southwestern Shenandoah County gathering at the home of April Moore, a writer who has been watching the ongoing drilling controversy in Rockingham.
At the heart of the matter is the rock beneath Moore’s house and much of the ridges that form the Valley’s western edge. Known as the Marcellus shale, this sedimentary rock extends through much the Appalachians between Virginia and New York and can contain valuable reservoirs of natural gas. Geologists have estimated recently that the Marcellus shale could hold enough recoverable gas to supply the country for 14 years.
The Marcellus shale formation in Shenandoah County is found beneath the ridges on the county’s southwestern edge around Basye, beneath the northwestern section of the county around Star Tannery and beneath the Fort Valley.
A process called “hydrofracking” is often used to extract natural gas from the Marcellus shale. This involves pumping pressurized water mixed with sand and chemicals into the Marcellus shale, fracturing the rock and releasing natural gas trapped below the surface.
Those concerned about Carrizo’s application to mine natural gas in Rockingham County say hydrofracking could contaminate groundwater, generate wastewater that local treatment plants will be unable to clean and create safety hazards for people who live near drilling sites. (Carrizo representatives have said that their well would be too deep to affect local water supplies, and that the company drilled more than 200 wells elsewhere without incident).
The citizen group in Rockingham has pointed to cases of environmental and safety problems in Pennsylvania and New York, where hydrofracking is widespread, and lobbied local and state officials to enact strict regulations before permitting any such gas mining in Virginia. No hydrofracking operations are currently in operation in the state.
Moore hopes that Shenandoah County officials will be educated and prepared ahead of time to evaluate any gas drilling applications, if or when one comes before the county. She said that she and her neighbors are generally wary of the prospect, but would support natural gas extraction if they were sure it could be done safely.
“To my knowledge, none of my neighbors have been approached by a company wanting to drill for oil or gas,” Moore said. “We [just] want to make sure that our members of the Board of Supervisors know that we are concerned about this.”
Though just one special use permit to drill a gas well has been filed in Rockingham County, Carrizo and several other companies have purchased leases to extract natural gas on thousands and thousands of acres of private land around Bergton and Criders.
Records at the county courthouse, however, showed that no such leases had been bought in Shenandoah County as of late last month. County Administrator Doug Walker also said the issue has not been brought before county officials.
The two counties’ zoning ordinances contain a key difference that appears to explain why no leasing has occurred in Shenandoah County even as significant amounts of nearby land in Rockingham County has been leased for gas exploration.
“Drilling is considered mining, and mining requires a special use permit in Shenandoah County, and then only in the manufacturing district,” Walker said.
In Rockingham County, drilling is allowable by special use permit in both the industrial and agricultural zoning districts, meaning far more land could legally be mined for gas there than in Shenandoah County. The pending special use permit application to drill for gas near Bergton is on land zoned for agriculture.
Though some Shenandoah County land zoned for manufacturing does sit atop the Marcellus shale, Walker said that gas exploration has not arisen as an issue in his office.
“I’m not aware of any inquiries with regard to mining the Marcellus shale for natural gas or anything else,” Walker said.
William Lassetter, an economic geologist with the state’s Division of Geology and Mineral Resources, said that just because there’s Marcellus shale beneath the ground doesn’t mean a given area would attract gas companies. Depending on the rock’s specific composition and structural history, he continued, it could contain lots of natural gas, or it could hold none at all.
Lassetter emphasized that his agency has no involvement with leasing or local permit applications, and said that he doesn’t know whether the quality of the gas reserves in Shenandoah County’s Marcellus shale are a reason that no leasing activity has occurred.
Carrizo, the company hoping to drill for natural gas in Rockingham County, did not return a message seeking comment on whether the company has any plans to buy drilling leases in Shenandoah County.
Regardless, Moore plans to continue working to raise local awareness about the issue in case gas drilling companies do turn their attention to Shenandoah County.
“I just want to be ready,” she said. “We really need time to get some good, quality regulations in place so our water [and land] can be protected.”
For more information about the Supinlick Ridge residents’ future meetings and other plans, contact Moore at 856-3553
By Andrew Jenner