Gwen Lachelt’s learning curve on oil and gas drilling began one day more than a quarter-century ago in Colorado when she picked up a copy of the Durango Herald.

Amoco, the oil giant, “was planning to drill 1,000 gas wells in my community,” Lachelt told a standing-room-only crowd assembled in Bowling Green Town Hall on Wednesday night.

Lachelt, a county commissioner in La Plata County, Colo., and founder of the EARTHWORKS Oil & Gas Accountability Project there, recalled, “My phone started ringing, and my phone has not stopped ringing.”

The occasion was a workshop on the prospect of gas and oil drilling planned by a Texas-based company in the Taylorsville basin here, east of Interstate 95. The workshop in Bowling Green, and one in Montross on Thursday night, were hosted by the Friends of the Rappahannock and the Caroline County Countryside Alliance.

“One of my first calls was from a rancher who said, ‘We’ve got to do something, and we’ve got to protect our water,’” said Lachelt, who has worked for stronger environmental protections in her home state, and met with groups like the ones here that are dealing with the prospect of drilling for the first time.

John Tippett, FOR’s executive director, noted prior to Lachelt’s presentation that the purpose of the workshops is gathering information.

“First off,” Tippett said, “neither FOR or CCCA have taken a position” on whether hydraulic fracturing in the basin—an ancient lake bed which runs from under Richmond through the Middle Peninsula and parts of the Northern Neck—is good or bad.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a drilling technique in which millions of gallons of water, chemicals, sand and other fluids are injected into the ground to fracture gas-bearing deposits to make it easier to recover. It’s usually combined with a relatively new process of horizontal drilling.

Tippett said of the meetings, “What we hope is to start a conversation between elected officials and each other.”

Lachelt said her Colorado home “has received tremendous benefit from oil and gas production.”

La Plata, in the southwestern corner of the state, sits over rich, gas-bearing shale deposits and has received millions of dollars in revenue from fracking, she says, which has helped keep local taxes down.

But energy production “comes with impacts,” she added. Those prompted her to start the EARTHWORKS Oil & Gas Accountability Project in 1999.

“And to do what I’m doing tonight: to get out to communities looking at this type of development, and to help them figure out how to get ahead of the impact An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Her learning curve, she said, was steep.

“It was trial by fire, and I know that this is where you all are at, as well,” she told the crowd, and that industry technology and jargon—leasing, mineral rights, surface rights, fracking, injection wells, production pits, closed-loop systems, for instance—will become familiar soon enough.

“It seems like there’s something new to learn every day.”

Visitors to the La Plata airport, she said, can’t miss the industry’s presence.

“As far as the eye can see, there’s a patchwork of well pads, pipelines and roads, compressor stations” to gather and move the gas through the system “and lots of other facilities,” she said.

“You see drilling rigs in farmers’ fields, next to homes, pipelines and pipeline corridors.”

Dust from drilling and new roads carved in the countryside was a big issue early on, along with noise from compressor stations and pump jacks.

In the early days of development there, she said, methane and hydrogen gas leaking from rigs contaminated some nearby water wells, and pits containing fracking materials leaked, contaminating groundwater and soil.

Many early problems have been addressed with more stringent industry and local regulations, she said.

Stan Sherrill, president of Shore Exploration and Production Corp., who attended the meeting in Bowling Green, said the company intends to be environmentally responsible.

“There are a lot of laws in the state of Virginia that are not in Colorado,” he said. “We have to satisfy not only DMME [the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy] but also the Department of Environmental Quality and the [local] Board of Supervisors. We have a lot of work to do, and we want to be a good neighbor.”

Shore has secured mineral leases on more than 84,000 acres in the basin. Sherrill has said the company hopes to begin drilling within a year to 18 months.

Rick Parrish, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, said DMME is the lead regulatory agency, reviewing and granting drilling permit applications.

But he said the agency, “has absolutely nothing on the books pertaining to shale fracking” proposed by Shore. “They have no experience with this kind of hydrofracking.”

Still, he said, the Virginia legislature, beginning in 1990, enacted laws protecting drilling in the Chesapeake Bay and along its tributaries.

As a result, drilling in the Taylorsville basin, “is not the same as elsewhere in Virginia. There was some recognition of the special sensitivity about drilling in the basin because of its proximity to the bay.”

Current law, he said, prohibits drilling within 500 feet of the bay, one of its tributaries, or resources protection areas designated by localities for extra protection.

“Local governments have a good deal of authority to decide what goes on—and where—through land use and zoning authority.”

ABOUT THE BASIN

The Taylorsville basin dates back about 210 million years to the Mesozoic Era. It’s among several basins extending from offshore, through Virginia’s Coastal Plain, west to the Appalachian Mountains.

Ancient organic material, under pressure and heat, created the coal, natural gas and oil, in layers that run from near the surface to deep underground. The challenge, geologists say, is choosing the right spot to drill.

–U.S. Geological Survey

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431

 

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