“Is it a financial windfall or a Pandora’s box?” asked Jerry Davis, the executive director of the Northern Neck Planning District Commission (NNPDC), about the possibility of hydraulic fracturing — “fracking” —coming into use as a mining technique in the Northern Neck-Middle Peninsula area.
Davis set up and moderated a September 3 panel discussion on this timely subject in Rappahannock Community College’s Warsaw Campus lecture hall, with interactive video links to the Warsaw Campus Student Lounge and the Glenns Campus. Featured on the panel were the Virginia Secretaries of Commerce and Trade (the Honorable Maurice Jones) and of Natural Resources (the Honorable Molly Ward), as well as the president of the Virginia Oil and Gas Association (Brentley Archer) and the senior attorney of the Southern Environmental Law Center (Richard Parrish).
“RCC was delighted to host the panel discussion,” noted Dr. Elizabeth Crowther, the college’s president. “The discussion was very informative: the panel members dealt directly with issues surrounding fracking, and its particular impact on both the underground and above-ground natural resources in a rural area. We were honored to have the Secretaries of Natural Resources, and Commerce and Trade, on campus for the event. The public participation was good, and the college utilized the panel as one of its ongoing Sustainability Lectures.” The event — co-sponsored by the NNPDC and the Chesapeake Bay Region Partnership — was one of a series presented by RCC’s Environmental Sustainability Committee, in keeping with its objective of disseminating information about the environment and “green” technologies.
Mentioning that his agency’s goal is to promote and encourage the economic development of the district, Davis explained that gas and oil mining rights in the Taylorsville Basin, a mineral-rich geological formation that underlies this area, have recently been acquired by a Texas drilling company. Any actual mining, however, has to wait for applications to be prepared, submitted to the state government, and approved, a process that could take some years . . . and in fact, no applications have been filed to date. In the meantime, the traditional occupations, which Davis listed as “farming, fishing, forestry, and fun [tourism],” with the addition of what he called the “fogey effect,” referring to the area’s substantial and growing population of retirees, can continue unchecked.
He then yielded the floor to Brentley Archer, who gave a short description of what is involved in the fracking process — pumping fluid at high pressure into deep rock formations in order to fracture them, causing cracks through which natural gas and oil can flow more freely.
Possible effects of fracking operations, said Richard Parrish, could include groundwater, surface water, and air pollution, as well as results affecting the quality of life, such as round-the-clock industrial activity, accompanied by heavy traffic, in remote rural areas. Many tanker trucks would be used, he emphasized, first to haul in the huge amount of water needed for the high-pressure pumping, and then to haul away wastewater.
While the mining operations would create jobs, the “boom and bust” cycle that occurs as mineral deposits are worked out and exhausted would mean that those jobs would mostly disappear within 20 or 30 years. But Parrish did say that the southwestern counties of Virginia have been living with fracking operations for some years, and the problems it causes are minor compared to those that come with coal mining.
In addition, the Taylorsville Basin is exceptional not only in being much smaller than most such formations (and therefore less attractive to large mining operations), but also in the fact that it was formed from the bed of a freshwater lake rather than a body of salt water. Therefore, the proportion of harmful minerals in the wastewater that is expelled should be much smaller.
A question period following the panel discussion brought out a number of thought-provoking points. One was whether the water used for the fracking process would come from the Potomac Aquifer; Parrish replied that there was very little chance that Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality would approve withdrawing such an enormous volume. Secretary Ward added that a large percentage of the water now withdrawn from the aquifer goes to a comparatively small group of users (mostly industrial). Her department, she says, is working with these users in order to help them find alternate sources.
The fact that no representative attended from the United States Environmental Protection Agency was taken to indicate that jurisdiction over mining companies would be a “gray area,” depending on state or local politics, and varying as political boundaries are crossed. Parrish advised concerned citizens to “find out what the locals want, and fight for it.”
A retired member of RCC’s faculty asked Secretary Jones rhetorically if he were trying to make the Northern Neck into a metropolitan area. Many residents, he said, are very willing to put in the travel time to work elsewhere, if they are guaranteed a peaceful place to come home to … something that might no longer exist if mining operations became a reality.
Secretaries Ward and Jones pledged to work together to see that all sides of the issue — economic advantages and disadvantages, social impact, water and air quality, and others — are considered before any drilling permits are issued. Secretary Jones in particular urged his listeners to “think big” in order to assure “a healthy economy for years to come. The need for energy, for both businesses and consumers, will continue,” he reminded them.
While he was in the area, Secretary Jones took the opportunity to visit RCC’s other main campus. “We were happy to host Secretary Jones and Mary Rae Carter [Virginia’s Deputy Secretary for Rural Development] on the Glenns Campus, where they spoke to a number of us about economic development and workforce training for the region,” said Dr. Crowther. “They toured the college’s new welding and HVAC training facilities, and expressed great interest in the full classes of students now training in those fields.”