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Drilling in the Valley

Millions of gallons of water are used to literally fracture the earth to get at the natural gas below. And below is the operative word – hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, as it’s commonly called, aims at natural-gas reserves anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 feet beneath the earth’s surface.

The good news is that natural gas is potentially a steady source of bridge fuel as our nation moves away from oil and toward renewable energies. The bad news is, well, if we don’t do it right, we could turn our own backyard into a wasteland en route.

“In the current climate, with the lack of any kind of adequate state or federal regulation, it would be absolutely not responsible now to do it. Whether or not someday in the future technology will be developed and safeguards will be in place, and best-management practices will be developed so that we can extract natural gas in a safe, responsible manner, I don’t know. I hope that we will, because it could be an important domestic source of energy. But at this point, I can say with certainty that the regulations are not in place to make it a responsible thing to do,” said Kate Wofford, the executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Network, a Luray-based community group that has been working to raise awareness of facts relative to hydrofracking.

The issue isn’t an academic one. In February, Carrizo LLC filed a request for a special-use permit in Rockingham County that would allow it to drill an exploratory well in Bergton. The request has been tabled by the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors as county leaders seek to educate themselves more on natural-gas drilling.

As the issue isn’t merely academic, neither is it specific to Rockingham County. The Marcellus Shale gas field underlies underlies a chunk of the Shenandoah Valley and extends into West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. Drilling operations are already under way in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and it’s not hard to project that if the well in the works in Bergton ever goes online and tests well, then we could see more wells like it up and down the Valley, including western portions of Augusta County.

“It’s never one well. They put multiple wells in a pad. And they have to build infrastructure to make it beneficial to move the product to market. So there’s a large amount of infrastructure, therefore you need a large number of wells to be able to pay for that infrastructure. So when they move into an area, it’s not small-scale at all,” said Kim Sandum, the executive director of the Community Alliance for Preservation, a Rockingham County-based group that has been leading the local effort to raise awareness on the drilling issue.

The impacts can be manifold – both positive and negative.

“A lot of people in the environmental community see natural gas as the bridge fuel between dirty coal and renewable energy that is not online yet,” Wofford said. “Landowners stand to make some revenue. Local governments and state governments stand to make some tax revenues. There are some pluses to it.”

The minuses: “At this point, it’s just like the Wild West. There aren’t safeguards in place to do it in a responsible way,” Wofford said.

A key issue: what to do with the water once it has done its job in fracturing the earth to open up the natural-gas stores. About half of the fracking fluid comes back up, “and it needs to be disposed of,” Wofford said.

“The permit application in Rockingham proposed dealing with what is really an industrial waste by spray-dispersing it around the well. That site is in the floodplain. Frankly, that is very alarming,” Wofford said. “This is an area between two creeks that make up the headwaters of the North Fork of the Shenandoah. This is certainly a concern to neighbors in the Bergton area, but should there be an accident, should there be a flood, that could impact quite a lot of people downstream as well.”

And downstream isn’t just Rockingham. The North Fork of the Shenandoah empties into the Shenandoah River. Which empties into the Potomac River. Which empties into the Chesapeake Bay.

Another concern for Sandum: “Marcellus Shale underlies most of the George Washington National Forest. There’s a huge amount of land that isn’t under the jurisdiction of local governments that is the source of many communities’ water supplies. That’s almost a greater concern than one well in Bergton.”

And then there’s possible impacts on road networks in rural areas in western Rockingham and western Augusta that weren’t designed for industrial truck traffic, the impacts on emergency services in those rural areas, the air-quality issues that you could expect with industrial waste being spray-dispersed.

“When you talk to people about natural-gas drilling, they think it’s the old type of well where you poke a hole in the ground, something comes up, something doesn’t come up, you have a little pipe coming out of the ground, and that’s it. The hydraulic fracturing is a whole different animal,” Sandum said.

“We’re in a position with this now where we can prevent some of the damage that has occured in other communities and other states,” Wofford said. “If we can get appropriate safeguards in place in the future, there might be a responsible way to do this. Right now, those safeguards don’t exist at the state level or federal level. We’re in a great position in Virginia because we haven’t made the mistakes that have been made in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.”

Learn more

Shenandoah Valley Network
Community Alliance for Preservation

Story by Chris Graham. Chris can be reached at