On-Again, Off-Again & The Longer View of Gas Drilling In Rockingham County

A new letter went out early this month, repeating a plea that’s starting to sound kind of familiar: “Let me get right to the point: we need your help to keep natural gas fracking out of the George Washington National Forest,” writes the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, which has a habit of underlining the important bits of its letters.

It’s a theme that lots other environmental groups have been pushing now for well over a year (e.g., e.g.), ever since the George Washington National Forest announced that it may allow fracking in its new management plan (release of which has been delayed multiple times).

Things have reached an odd stasis: a release date is projected, warnings are sounded, a new release date is projected, the alarms go off again. More reading on related stuff here and here and here and here and here.

This echoes the longer history of gas drilling in the county, which has been an on-again, off-again topic since the late 19th century. The details change with the times – widespread local resistance to gas drilling on environmental grounds is a new thing – but the general cycle is well established.

On May 20, 1935, for example, a crowd of 700 gathered, with great pomp and circumstance, to kick off the drilling of a well in Bergton. A report on the event in the next day’s Washington Post noted that oil and gas drilling “in the mountainous country in northwest Rockingham … has been spasmodically discussed for the past half century.”

Six years later, an even bigger crowd of 1,000 people came back to watch Bergton’s No. 1 natural gas well open, shooting a plume of “blue vapor” 40 feet into the air “with a roar that echoed from the surrounding mountain slopes.” (The Washington Post coverage of this spectacle notes that interruptions in drilling the well stretched the process out over six years).

And again, a decade later, according to yet another Post report, Charleston-based United Fuel Gas Co. announced that a well in Bergton was producing natural gas “in commercial quantities.” The paper struck an optimistic tone: “A vast new industry for western Virginia loomed as a possibility today with the disclosure of successful drills for natural gas in Rockingham County.”

The vast new industry thing never panned out. By 1965, 10 of the 15 wells that had then been drilled near Bergton had been abandoned. There was another little flicker of interest a decade and a half later, when a company called Merrill Natural Resources drilled three wells in 1980. Another outfit brought two old wells back into commission and connected them to Columbia Gas’s supply pipelines.

This was the first actual commercial production from the Bergton gas field since those “spasmodic” discussions about gas wells in the area began a century earlier, and it wasn’t much to get excited about. In 1982 and 1983, a handful of new wells were drilled. All of them were dry. Another company bought out the few (somewhat) productive wells and ran them until 1986, when they shut down for good, having produced, in the grand scheme of things, very, very little gas.

Another 20 years went by, during which horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing became a thing. In 2006, a company called Carrizo took out its first drilling leases on private land in Rockingham County, and in 2010, kicked off the ongoing fracking dustup by applying to drill another test well in Bergton. In the face of local resistance to the proposal, and when a test well it actually did drill in West Virginia, just a few miles from Bergton, performed as poorly as the other gas well that have been drilled there over the past 80 years, Carrizo began letting its private gas leases lapse. (In May, when Old South High first reported on this development, a representative of the Houston company said it has no plans to return to the area.)

And then we’re back to the present, to the latest Sierra Club letter, to whatever might possibly be going on in the great blue bureaucratic yonder of the National Forest Service. Regardless of what decision eventually materializes, for now, it seems the decision’s somewhat moot.

Fracking won’t happen just because it’s allowed. It will happen if it’s allowed and there’s money to be made. Doesn’t look like anyone thinks that’s the case. If Carrizo thought its local leases were sitting on natural gas jackpots, you can bet they’d have tried harder to bring them into production. And since 2008, there have been more than 10,000 acres of national forest land in Highland County under a 10-year oil and gas lease, where, if someone had enough incentive, drilling could already be happening.

There are rocks under the ground here that have been enticing petrogeologists for nearly 80 years, though they haven’t – and still can’t – figure out how to extract natural gas from them in any real quantity. Interest has ebbed and flowed, leases have come and gone and come and gone again. When a new forest plan comes out, it won’t last forever; by the time it’s time to write the next one, letters about new threats to the George Washington National Forest will surely go out. Fracking isn’t banned under the current plan because when it was written, the kind of fracking at issue today wasn’t really invented yet. Who knows what’s coming next.

This isn’t to say that it’s all no big deal. It’s just not a new deal, and chances seem great it’ll come up again.

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