Saying they had to protect the health, safety and welfare of residents—as well as drinking water and other resources—members of the King George Board of Supervisors imposed strict limits on natural gas drilling.
On Tuesday, board members unanimously agreed to amend their zoning ordinance and Comprehensive Plan, after studying the issue for almost two years. The locality became the first in what’s known as the Taylorsville basin, a five-county area east and south of Fredericksburg, to put restrictions in place.
“It’s not a straight—out ban,” said Supervisor Richard Granger, adding that the county’s desire to protect its people and resources was “not an unreasonable expectation.”
Fellow Supervisor John Jenkins Jr. said hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, isn’t a “good fit for King George. If there is half a percent chance that our drinking water could be tainted, then we need to move forward with the amendments.”
The vote came after a two-hour public hearing, which included comments from 10 residents—nine of whom wanted the proposals passed or even stricter ones put in place—as well as five representatives from the gas and oil industry and three from environmental groups. About 30 people attended the meeting, and 18 of them stepped up to the podium.
Chairwoman Ruby Brabo, who spent three days in Southwestern Virginia last week as part of a group reviewing statewide drilling regulations, said industry officials told her there currently wasn’t much interest in the Taylorsville basin.
“If there truly was no interest in our region, then no one from the industry would be threatening us with [legal] action,” she said.
Then, she quoted supervisors in Garfield County, Colo., who have dealt with fracking for 16 years. “Each one said, ‘When they threaten to sue you, you tell them, go right ahead.’ ”
Threats definitely were in the air and on paper. The statement from Miles Morin, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council, looked like a legal brief, not a letter, and he said the county “may be exposed to costly and unnecessary litigation if it moves forward.”
That threat seemed to have stopped King George supervisors in their tracks almost a year ago, when they considered changing drilling amendments in September. Also at the time, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, the state agency that monitors drilling, was reviewing its regulations, and King George officials wanted to wait for that review.
But Brabo said recently that the county has been “put on notice that it’s not a matter of if fracking [comes here], but when.” As a result, the board sought measures to address how, when and where fracking might take place.
Hydraulic fracturing is the process of injecting chemicals deep into the ground to loosen trapped gas.
County officials decided to give the public another chance to comment on the proposed amendments. The only difference in this year’s proposal pertained to setbacks.
In 2015, the ordinance suggested that no drilling could be done 1,000 feet from resource protected areas, such as rivers and creeks, as well as roads, buildings and schools. Under those guidelines, drilling could take place in only 4 percent of the county.
The 2016 ordinance reduced that setback to 750 feet, making 9 percent of the county potentially eligible for drilling. Brabo said changing that condition keeps King George’s regulations from being “an outright ban.”
Resident Andrew Ball didn’t like the change.
“These are weak amendments. If this is the best you can do, so be it,” he said. “But it’s a sorry day when local authority doesn’t have the resolve to stand up” and listen to its residents instead of being swayed by the threat of lawsuits.
For a while, the public hearing seemed like a ping-pong match, as each side took turns giving opinions or citing studies. As in other meetings about the controversial practice of fracking, the lines seem to be drawn with industry advocates on one side and residents and environmental groups on the other.
David Clarke, a lawyer with the Virginia Oil and Gas Association, said the DMME already has enough regulations in place—and the rules take into account the sensitive area of Tidewater, of which the Taylorsville basin is part.
Kristin Davis, lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said King George was wise to enact ordinances to protect sensitive areas like the Northern Neck and important water sources such as the Rappahannock River and the Chesapeake Bay.
Katie Brown, a spokesperson for Energy in Depth, which is funded by petroleum money, asked the county to consider “the best available science and the facts on hydraulic fracturing.” She cited several studies which said the process has not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.
Bill Johnson, the conservation chairman for the Sierra Club, Rappahannock Group, practically had smoke coming out of his ears when he spoke.
“If we listen to the oil and gas industry, everything is fine and there’s no problem,” he said. “That’s not facts. The industry is only concerned about making money and not concerned about the rest of us.”
Kenneth Snow works for Shore Exploration Corp., the Texas-based company that’s leased 84,000 acres for possible drilling in the Taylorsville basin. He said “natural gas is the cleanest way to provide the energy we need, and there’s a lot of natural gas in this area.”
Resident Ci Nitznik said people who live in King George don’t want fracking, while those who live outside its borders do. “Please protect us from those individuals who want to come and rip apart what we have built in our county.”
Resident Jim Lynch said that no one in the environmental community wants to eliminate all use of fuels. He said he appreciated the industry perspective, but wished representatives would stand up and say, “We respect your concern for your community and your way of life. Here’s what we can do to work with you.’
“We don’t hear that,” Lynch said. “All we hear is threats to take us to court. I’m sorry, but I reject that.”