Message From the ECCA regarding Hydraulic Fracturing
The recent surge in oil and gas leases in Essex County and our neighboring counties has led many area residents to express concern over the possible impacts of the drilling process known as “Fracking.” Essex County Countryside Alliance does not have special expertise regarding this issue, but like many conservation organizations we are continuing to collect information to help us answer questions of our members regarding this controversial subject. Because this is an evolving situation, we have developed an interim statement that is based on the information we have collected to date and our efforts to understand the potential risks associated with the fracking process. This statement is intended to help educate our members on the hydraulic fracturing process and to summarize the questions and concerns our members have raised. For an excellent article on this subject which has been a source for our discussion of the fracking process, see www.geosociety.org/criticalissues/hydraulicfracturing.
WHAT IS FRACKING?
It is important to be clear on what the term “fracking” means. Technically this is a short form term for “hydraulic fracturing”, a process that has been used for many years in oil and gas production to extract hydrocarbon reserves from permeable rock formations. What is different today is that hydraulic fracturing is now being used to extract oil and gas from shale and other rock formations of low permeability, and the wells that are being drilled are not just vertical wells but often include horizontal directional drilling. Hydrocarbons exits in the “pore” spaces of rocks and are trapped in rock formations of low permeability which inhibits the flow. Hydraulic fracturing can be used to increase the permeability of the rock to the point where it is economical to extract the oil or gas. It involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into the rock formation under high pressure conditions which creates cracks and fractures. Typically, sand or some other inert substance is then inserted into the fractures to keep them open so as to allow the hydrocarbons that were trapped to flow through the fractures. Some of the fracturing fluids remain in the subsurface and some of it returns to the surface along with the oil and gas that is extracted. This is called “flowback.” The hydrocarbons are separated from the flowback at the surface and the remaining fluids (including saline water and chemicals) are collected in lined pits or tanks for later disposal. Hydraulic fracturing of low permeable rock formations through horizontal or directional drilling generally involves longer boreholes (thousands of feet) and higher volumes of water (several million gallons per well) than conventional oil and gas wells.
A number of environmental concerns have been raised about hydraulic fracturing. In this statement, we will highlight the primary concerns which are referenced in the literature we have collected and in the concerns expressed to ECCA by its members.
USE OF CHEMICAL ADDITIVES: A variety of chemical additives may be used in the fluids necessary for the fracking process. The exact mix may depend on the rock formation and this information may be considered proprietary by the oil and gas company. We are not aware of any requirement that the names and amount of the chemicals used be disclosed to the public. Chemicals are used to dissolve minerals and create the fractures, but they are also used to reduce friction and pipe corrosion, to limit bacterial growth, and to carry the inert material that props open the fractures. Because the drills and pipes may go through both the shallow and deep water aquifers, concerns have been raised that the chemicals may migrate through the well bore or fractures to contaminate aquifers. These concerns address both new wells and wells that may be abandoned after they are no longer considered commercially viable. The monitoring of the risk of contamination, health considerations, the accountability for faulty design or operation, and the technical ability to perform remedial action are among the concerns expressed. Concerns have also been raised regarding the potential for contamination of ground water at the site where chemicals are mixed, at the storage and holding pit sites, or when the waste water is collected or transported away from the well site. These concerns address the potential threat to drinking water and to waters which are used for crop irrigation and recreational purposes.
OTHER CONCERNS: There have also been concerns expressed over the potential depletion of the aquifer due to the large volume of water that would be required to support hydraulic fracturing, the competitive need for this water by farmers who irrigate, and the possible need for households to drill new water wells in the Taylorsville Basin Area. Additional concerns have been raised regarding the potential for gas leaks and oil spills, and for noise disturbance due to the drilling, truck usage, and loud, continuous operation of generators. Still other concerns relate to the terms of the lease agreements: are they assignable to another oil company or driller; are they voidable; do they contain penalty, liability, cost sharing or indemnity provisions; are the terms negotiable; how are they enforced; and many other questions. Because a lease is a legal contract, it is recommended that any landowner who may be considering signing a lease with an oil and gas company engage an attorney to review its provisions.
Legal and regulatory oversight of hydraulic fracturing by the federal government and by the State is evolving and has not yet been clearly defined. It is also clear that county ordinances will have to be developed to address issues which may be of particular concern to area residents. All of this is a work in progress.
ECCA’S POSITION ON FRACKING
Thank you for your continuing interest in this controversial subject and for your commitment to the protection of our rural environment and our rivers and streams. Essex County's residents are fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful areas of Virginia. As we evaluate perceived economic opportunities, we should always be mindful that we are stewards of our environment and understand that our actions can either preserve or destroy the natural resources that define our county and make it such a special place in which to live. While the risks associated with fracking are hard to quantify and may be debatable, ECCA believes this process has the potential to damage our environment and redefine the character of Essex County. As a consequence, ECCA does not endorse fracking and will urge our federal, state and local governments to develop regulations that strictly control and monitor this process. This statement is fully consistent with the mission of ECCA which is to promote and protect the rural character of Essex County by advocating the preservation of its farms, forests, wetlands, and natural resources.