Clarke County’s Supervisors raised a cautionary discussion about mineral rights and natural gas drilling on Tuesday. The exchange was prompted by the increasing interest in natural gas mineral rights west of Clarke County and the potential for environmental impacts caused by a new extraction method referred to as “fracking”.
Natural gas drilling has already generated environmental and economic interest in what is known as the Marcellus Shale beds to the north of our area. Although the massive shale rock formation lies below much of the eastern United States, initial drilling forays by energy companies have been focused primarily in portions of the upper Delaware River Basin in Pennsylvania and New York.
However, Clarke County Supervisors are becoming wary due to real estate activities in western Virginia and West Virginia that could see fracking operations being practiced near Clarke County.
“There’s very little state oversight of all of this” Staelin said. “It’s unlikely that there would be any interest in Clarke County because the gas is contained in shale. However, if pollution from the water used to extract the gas were to get into the Shenandoah River it could affect us.”
The Marcellus Shale natural gas shale formation was once thought to hold a mere 1.9 trillion cubic feet of gas. However, a new survey by Pennsylvania State University and the State University of New York suggests that the shale formation may actually hold as much as 500 trillion cubic feet with approximately 50 trillion cubic feet recoverable. Currently the US produces roughly 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas annually. If estimates of 50 trillion feet of recoverable natural gas from the Marcellus Shale are correct it will be one of the largest natural gas ranges in the United States.
Yet retrieving the natural gas from the shale has proven to be expensive and controversial.
To retrieve the natural gas, energy companies use a new drilling technique called “horizontal fracking”. The energy company first drills to the desired vertical depth then sends the drill shaft horizontally. Once the well is drilled, millions of gallons of water, sand and proprietary chemicals are injected under high pressure into the well. The resulting pressure fractures the shale and open fissures that enable natural gas to flow freely out of the well.
Congress exempted fracking from Environmental Protection Agency regulation with the Energy Act of 2005. As a result individual states are required to monitor and to regulate fracking activities. Virginia, as with other state jurisdictions faced with budget challenges, has been slow to act due to the complex scientific and legal issues involved in regulation.
Pressure to move forward with gas extraction is likely to increase with, or without, adequate state regulation. The rise in natural gas prices combined with new, efficient drilling technique has caused the price of natural gas shale mineral rights to soar.
According to the Pocahontas Times, mineral rights offers in Pocahontas, West Virginia had reached $1000 per acre. In northeastern Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus Shale is thicker and easier to drill, mineral rights payments have been reported of up to $3000 per acre. Royalty rates have also climbed from one-eighth of well proceeds to eighteen to twenty percent.
According to the West Virginia Highlands Voice, on July 11, 2008, the West Virginia Farm Bureau sponsored a meeting in Elkins, West Virginia of landowners from seven counties who had been approached by agents for gas companies seeking mineral rights. The turn out for the meeting was so large that even after moving to a bigger auditorium more than two hundred people were turned away.
Pennsylvania’s experience with natural gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale may serve as an indication of the issues that need to be addressed by Virginia in order to properly manage natural gas fracking operations.
Violations in Pennsylvania have included poorly constructed and dangerous water impoundments, inadequate erosion and sediment controls, improper waste and fluid disposal, and improper and unregistered withdrawals of water from streams.
Regulation efforts are challenging due, in part, to the complex process used to retrieve the gas. For each frack, up to 300 tons of chemicals may be used. Presently, the natural gas industry does not have to disclose the chemicals used, but scientists have identified volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene used in the process. The natural gas is extracted “wet” and must be separated from the wastewater once it reaches the surface. Some estimates have suggested that only 30-50% of the water is typically recovered from a well. Evaporators are then used evaporate off VOCs and condensate tanks steam off VOCs. Finally, the wastewater is then trucked to water treatment facilities for further processing.
As VOCs are evaporated and come into contact with diesel exhaust from trucks and generators at the well site, ground level ozone is produced. Ozone plumes can travel up to 250 miles placing Clarke County within range of pollution generated from wells to the west.
Clarke County Natural Resource Planner Alison Teetor will be attending a Regional Water Resources Policy Committee workshop on Marcellus Shale in Winchester on October 28, 2010 from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Registration for the event is open through October 22.