For an obscure drilling technique barely on the nation’s radar two years ago, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has garnered plenty of attention so far in 2014, pro and con. As the April 30 oil train derailment and explosion in Lynchburg shows for a state seemingly beyond the controversial technique’s reach, fracking is starting to come awfully close to home.
The CSX train carrying sweet crude oil fracked in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale fields was en route from Chicago to an oil terminal in Yorktown. News outlets reported at least 50,000 gallons of the oil was missing; an undetermined amount spilled into the James River.
The mishap, which evacuated the city’s downtown and closed several bridges, is at least the seventh such dangerous and deadly explosion on U.S. and Canadian rails since June. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation warned that North Dakota’s fracked oil is more flammable than heavier oil, giving rise to the name “bomb trains.” I doubt my late grandfather, a railroad carpenter, would get a charge out of that.
I’m as red-blooded as anyone and acknowledge that our economy has benefitted from the nation’s — take your pick — Fracking Frenzy or Shale Gale. Natural gas is at least better than coal. The industry provides jobs, and having a domestic source of oil could well keep U.S. fighting men and women of the future off the desert sands of the Middle East.
There are decent folks of good intent in the industry. But states and localities from Vermont to New York to Colorado have pushed back, banning the practice until the industry develops greater transparency and safer techniques that don’t threaten the environment, our drinking supply and our own health.
You might think we Virginians are insulated from modern fracking’s impact to the degree of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and North Carolina.
Until recently, you had to squint to see any fracking footprint in Virginia. County supervisors tabled proposals that would have brought to Rockingham County modern fracking — the high-pressure plunging of millions of gallons of water, sand and hazardous chemicals deep below to free trapped natural gas. Once they saw how the practice industrialized Wetzel County, W. Va., they wisely passed.
Just last week, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation reversed its original stance and voted against accepting conservation easements that allow oil and gas extraction — a response due in part to an outpouring of opposition from around the Old Dominion. Good move, VOF, and kudos to our own Stephanie Ridder, now head of VOF’s board.
Meanwhile, folks near Fredericksburg wrestle with the yin and yang of fracking proposed nearby in the Taylorsville Basin, the potential shale field running through the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. Texas-based Shore Exploration and Production has secured leases for mineral rights from landowners of more than 80,000 acres in five counties. Think Matt Damon’s “Promised Land.”
And more than two years have passed since the U.S. Forest Service promised its ruling on whether to allow fracking in the long-range master plan for the nearby George Washington National Forest, the East’s largest headwaters of the James, Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
Call me an accidental fractivist. My seriocomic, environmental novel “Mother Fracker” ludicrously imagined fracking coming to Rappahannock. Ha! As if the wise men and women leading “the jewel of Virginia” would ever let that happen. I fictitiously had us rattled by man-made, fracking-initiated earthquakes. Ha!
Then Ohio geologists confirmed their earthquakes were indeed man-made, caused by reinjection of spent and saline frackwater. I invented characters sickened by well water poisoned by fracking. Ha! Then a University of Colorado study showed higher incidents of birth defects in newborns near fracked wells.
And silly ol’ me, I dramatized an explosion and spill on the Pete Estes Bridge in Sperryville, a fracking tanker emptying its contents into the Thornton River.
Wednesday’s fireball in Lynchburg scared the silly right out of me, and it should scare the frack out of you. If the EPA, Energy and Transportation in Washington and parallel agencies in Richmond don’t spring quickly to enact rules ensuring our safety, what was fevered fiction will too soon become fact, right here in our own backyard.
Larry “Bud” Meyer lives on Long Mountain Road. He’ll be the featured author at 8 p.m. tomorrow (Friday, May 9) as part of RAAC’s Second Friday at the Library series.