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VA Can “Get Ahead” of Potential Gas Drill Risks

April 5, 2011

RICHMOND, Va. - A group of eight organizations is calling for a comprehensive study of potential risks to water safety and the environment from drilling for natural gas in the six-state Chesapeake Bay watershed. And a Virginia scientist says the Commonwealth has an advantage because the controversial method of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" has barely begun here.

The petitioners are asking for a study under the National Environmental Policy Act. They say drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation will generate much-needed energy and jobs, and billions in state revenues, but it needs to be done safely.

Mike Gerel, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says Virginia is well situated.

"Virginia has time to figure out how to make sure that any impacts - if there are any - are minimal."

Gerel says that while thousands of permits for wells have been taken out already in the states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, Virginia is in an advantageous position in terms of safety concerns.

"We don't have Marcellus Shale drilling yet, so we can go through it thoughtfully. We can make sure we have the oversight and the regulations, and that we can do it safely."

Gerel says one permit for a horizontal fracking test well in Bergton near the West Virginia border is pending.

Fracking involves using pressurized water and chemicals on shale rock deep underground, to blast it open and release natural gas trapped in the formation. Gerel says the state can and should move carefully on approving the procedure.

"Virginia has the ability through local zoning decisions, which some other areas of the country do not have, the other states who have been dealing with this. So on a community-by-community basis, they can decide how, as the law is right now, they want to deal with this."

Backers say the drilling method is safe and that natural gas is a necessary bridge to a future of renewable energy sources.

The petitioning groups also want President Obama to push for the federal study in light of an Executive Order he issued two years ago, making restoration of the Chesapeake Bay a priority.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - VA