VIRGINIANS are either hopeful or worried as the General Assembly convenes today under new management for the first time in 26 years. The Democrats’ 10-seat majority in the House of Delegates and two-seat majority in the state Senate will undoubtedly take the commonwealth in a number of new directions.
One is a proposed ban on hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking) in eastern Virginia, including the Taylorsville Basin, a deposit of over a trillion cubic feet of natural gas that runs northeast from Prince George County through Caroline and Essex to King George and Westmoreland counties. The basin, which was formed some 210 million years ago during the Triassic period, is at least 9,900 feet deep, according to the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.
The problem with fracking in the Taylorsville Basin is the threat it would pose to the aquifer that provides drinking water to much of the region and to the four major rivers that traverse eastern Virginia—the Potomac, Rappahannock, York and James—along with the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. The risk of contaminating water makes fracking in this area a bad idea.
In 2018, Sen. Scott Surovell, D–Fairfax, patroned a bill to prohibit hydraulic fracturing in the Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management Area, but it died in committee. Surovell has introduced it again for the 2020 session to protect the Potomac Aquifer, a large underground reservoir stretching from southeast Virginia Beach up the Interstate 95 corridor to eastern Fairfax County.
The bill, SB 106, would ban the extraction of natural gas using the hydraulic fracturing method, which involves pumping water and chemicals into deep rock formations in order to extract existing pockets of gas. Surovell pointed out that the gas deposits are “below the drinking water supply for 4 million people.”
Given that the results of a U.S. Department of Environmental Protection study in 2016 found “scientific evidence that activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances,” banning fracking in such areas is just common sense, especially since there are other places in the U.S. with natural gas deposits. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2019, there is enough technically recoverable natural gas in the U.S. to fuel the nation for the next 80 years.
The Marcellus Shale Formation under Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, West Virginia and smaller parts of Virginia and Maryland contains an estimated 84 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that has been under production since 2003. But geologists at Penn State believe the formation could hold up to 500 trillion cubic feet, which would make it the second largest natural gas field in the world.
A 2019 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that “shale-gas production in northern Pennsylvania has not currently caused widespread hydrocarbon contamination in the upland aquifer zone used for domestic supply,” and that methane concentrations in shallow wells in northeastern Pennsylvania, where shale gas extraction is occurring, “were not significantly different from those in the New York wells,” where fracking has been banned.
Given that Pennsylvania is the fifth largest producer of natural gas, behind Texas, California, Louisiana and Florida, the lack of widespread groundwater contamination there is good news. However, it’s not necessary or even advisable to allow fracking in Virginia when there is such an abundant supply of natural gas already under production nearby, including right next door in West Virginia, which is the eighth largest natural gas producer in the nation, with fracking accounting for three-quarters of all gas production statewide.
That said, Virginians still use a great deal of natural gas to heat and power their homes and businesses and as a back-up source of electricity as more renewable sources come online. The commonwealth consumed 634,018 million cubic feet of natural gas in 2018, up from 248,960 million cubic feet in 1997, as a cleaner-burning alternative to coal, according to EIA.
So while it makes sense to limit fracking to areas of the country that are already under production and are farther away from major water supplies, Virginians should also be aware that fracking is the source of most of the natural gas they consume every day.