- Associated Press - Friday, May 8, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Localities can prohibit or regulate a drilling process called hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas, Virginia’s attorney general wrote in an advisory opinion.

Attorney General Mark R. Herring issued the nonbinding opinion at the request of Sen. Richard H. Stuart, whose 28th District includes the natural gas rich Taylorsville Basin.

A Dallas energy company has leased tens of thousands of acres south and east of Fredericksburg with the intention of drilling for the estimated 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas embedded within the basin’s shale formations.

As the leasing has occurred, some localities have wondered how much say they have over fracking.

Although the opinion does not change law, “it gives local governments reassurance that they have legal authority to enact zoning laws that put limits on drilling operations to protect their communities and natural resources,” Greg Buppert, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a release Friday.

He said the opinion “is grounded in a careful analysis of Virginia law.”

Virginia has not been part of the gold rush for natural gas spawned by fracking, which occurs primarily in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and other states within the vast Marcellus Shale formation.

Fracking involves the use of sand, water and chemicals to free natural gas from a layer cake of rock and shale that previously couldn’t be reached by conventional drilling.

The process, however, has also raised questions about its environmental impact on water supplies and air quality.

In his opinion, dated May 5, Herring cites the “potential dangers” of fracking, such as its impact on groundwater supplies, air pollution and truck traffic.

Herring wrote, “It is my opinion that the General Assembly intended to permit localities to prohibit fracking operations through duly enacted land use or zoning ordinances, and the code of Virginia so provides.”

Herring added that localities can restrict fracking provided they “are reasonable in scope and are not inconsistent” with existing state law.

Shore Oil and Exploration Corp. has leased more than 80,000 acres in five counties in the Fredericksburg area.

Environmental groups have sounded the alarm about the prospect of drilling in an area snug to the Chesapeake Bay, which is amid a massive federally directed cleanup after years of pollution and neglect.

Kathleen Harrigan, executive director of Friends of the Rappahannock, said the conservation group has had “serious concerns” about energy development in the region.

“We hope that local elected officials now feel empowered to make decisions that best protect the Rappahannock River and the region’s future,” she said.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe and his Cabinet secretaries have said state permitting for natural gas drilling in Virginia’s coastal plain are years away.

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sszkotakap.


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