Carrizo Oil and Gas had every reason to believe this rustic town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains was an ideal place to build Virginia's first well to explore for natural gas in the state’s Marcellus Shale.
Carrizo liked Bergton’s location – 8km from the West Virginia border, not far from where other operations are extracting gas. Carrizo guessed that gas was locked in the shale under the town and put up tens of thousands of dollars for landowner leases as collateral. All it needed to start the job was a special land-use permit from the four Republicans and one Democrat on Rockingham County’s board of supervisors.
Carrizo didn’t even get close. Concerned about controversial drilling methods, the supervisors never voted on the permit, and recently the company shelved its application following a two-year pursuit, ending its immediate hopes of exploring for gas.
The rejection in Rockingham County was yet another hard knock against companies trying to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale closest to Washington. Negative publicity about water contamination at drilling sites in the Chesapeake Bay region and out west in Texas, Wyoming and Oklahoma is raising concern even among those who support gas exploration.
Virginia has 7 700 natural gas wells in operation, but none extracts gas from the rich Marcellus – a prehistoric shale formation that runs from Ohio to lower Virginia and entombs one of the most bountiful gas reserves in the world.
Maryland has also slammed the brakes on gas exploration. Last March, Governor Martin O’Malley's administration put off decisions on two permit applications to search for gas in the Marcellus under Garrett County until the completion of an exhaustive study. The state wants to know if a hydraulic fracturing process known as fracking, which uses high-pressure blasts of water mixed with a chemical cocktail to break rock and unlock gas, is safe.
Rockingham County’s opposition to Carrizo was led by one man, Pablo Cuevas, a Republican supervisor whose district covers Bergton. The county already has about 20 gas wells, so residents are familiar with drilling operations. But, alarmed by reports of chemical water contamination from fracking for natural gas in New York, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, Cuevas investigated Carrizo and Marcellus drilling in those states with a pit bull’s determination.
Cuevas learnt what the Marcellus Shale Coalition of companies, which support drilling, says all the time. Drilling in shale has an upside, bringing in billions of dollars in tax revenue and jobs, along with lease payments and gas royalties from companies to property owners. But he also encountered a downside: some residents complain of well water contamination and the strong stench of chemicals from fracking. Others say mechanical noise from the operation of the well persists through the night. Motorists complain of massive truck convoys that ruin roads. Cuevas wanted no part of that. Virginia had just spent $5 million (R38m) building a new road into Bergton, and trucks from a well operation would probably destroy it, he said.
And if chemicals used by Carrizo somehow contaminated the groundwater that local farmers rely on, the law only required the company to put aside $25 000 to cover the damage, Cuevas said. In meetings, he peppered company representatives with questions and demanded far more money than the company was willing to pay to cover the cost of potential mishaps.
At first, landowners who granted leases to Carrizo in return for rent payments and royalties were upset with Cuevas. But, after public hearings in which environmentalists and landowners in other states testified, their opinions slowly changed. “I’d just as soon not have the well up there because of the water contamination,” said Roger Smith, who leased 21 hectares to Carrizo in 2008.