Local governments can exert control over fracking
by Paula C. Squires
When it comes to fracking, local governments have power through their zoning laws to control the environmental impacts, a panel of energy officials said Wednesday.
Now is the time for localities to review ordinances before the industry gears up in Virginia, Greg Buppert, a senior attorney in the Virginia office of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said during a panel discussion on energy and the environment sponsored by the Associated Press during its annual Day at the Capital.
The event, held at the Richmond Times-Dispatch building, drew members of news organizations around the state.
As drilling for natural-gas picks up, the Taylorsville Basin near Fredericksburg has drawn interest with a Texas company acquiring about 86,000 acres in gas and oil leases. Today, many companies use fracking to get at the natural gas trapped in shale formations. Fracking involves injecting water, sand and chemicals underground at high pressures.
Fracking can result in such environmental impacts as large wastewater pits of as many as 40 acres, Buppert said. Localities can exert control by dictating where such pits can be located and by preventing fracking activities to occur near schools or residential areas. “Before the modern shale-gas drilling gets underway in Virginia, we have time to get our regulations tuned up and in place,” Buppert said.
Some environmental groups have raised concerns that fracking can harm local water supplies. Molly Ward, the state’s secretary of natural resources, said fracking is a topic of “great concern” to the McAuliffe administration. The Taylorsville Basin is located in a coastal aquifer that, she said, “is important to 50 percent of Virginians in terms of their water. The water quality there cannot be compromised. “
Before drilling could occur, a company would have to obtain a state permit, a process that could take up to two years. “Our concern is more long-term. We need to establish parameters on what happens in local areas. Some of those decisions can’t be made from Richmond. They need to be made at the local level,” she said.
Buppert suggested that localities might have the power under the state’s gas and oil act to ban fracking, although that power would have to be upheld by a court.
The panel also discussed a 550-mile natural gas pipeline that Dominion and other companies want to build. It would cut through some of the highest ridges of Virginia and through 30 miles of national forests. Buppert said his organization questions whether the proposed route would have the least environmental impact, compared with other possible routes.
Pam Faggert, chief environmental officer and vice president of corporate compliance for Dominion Virginia Power, said the company is in the process of doing surveys for the pipeline, which will help determine the final route. “We’re still defining the route. The surveys will help identify if the land is appropriate for the pipeline. They will help us identify any environmental concerns.”
According to Faggert, most residents in Virginia whose property needs to be surveyed have agreed. “ A few have said no,” she said.
A small group of residents in Nelson County have filed a lawsuit over the issue. The suit seeks to find a Virginia statute unconstitutional that allows Dominion to conduct surveys on residents' properties without the residents' permission.