In all the discussions about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the voices of residents who have leased land for gas drilling are about the only ones who have not been heard publicly.
Landowners in five counties—Caroline, Essex, King George, King and Queen and Westmoreland counties—have signed up 84,000 acres of their property to Shore Exploration and Production Corp. for possible drilling of natural gas.
Leased acreage ranges from several parcels under 10 acres each to the biggest in the basin: 2,650 acres owned by Ingleside Plantation Nurseries in Westmoreland County.
Yet, in sessions from Bowling Green to Tappahannock, there have been few occasions when residents shared their reasons for supporting drilling.
That’s why The Free Lance–Star is featuring five profiles on landowners—one from each affected county—today and Monday.
Almost half the leased land lies in Caroline County, and two residents recently spoke up for drilling in one of the few demonstrations of public support.
On Sept. 24 in Dahlgren, Tommy Upshaw and David Kelsey asked a panel convened by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to not impede progress.
Upshaw said the Taylorsville basin “didn’t just come to pass overnight,” and officials shouldn’t be dragging their feet at this stage of the game.
“If there were regulations that needed to be changed or passed, you all shouldn’t have waited until Shore was getting ready to seek a permit,” said Upshaw, who leased 900 acres this prepositional phrase has been addedfor possible drilling. “Don’t be holding them up in what they’re trying to do.”
Kelsey said he would like money from drilling royalties but also wants his home and water to remain safe.
He added that Caroline County, especially, could use the revenue that drilling would generate. Its median household is $58,044, which is $5,592 less than the state average. Ten percent of the county’s population is below the poverty level, according to the Census Bureau.
“I hope you work together to make this happen,” Kelsey said. “The county needs it, the country needs it.”
ESSEX: BRUCE LEE
When representatives from a Texas oil company asked Bruce Lee if he wanted to lease his land for possible gas drilling, he thought it was a win–win situation.
“Neighbors around me were signing up, so I did the same,” Lee said. “I didn’t study it. I thought about free money coming out of the ground, and it was a no-brainer.”
Lee has a bit of buyer’s remorse after learning about potential problems caused by fracking in other parts of the country.
“If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have signed up,” he said.
Lee, 64, lives off U.S. 17 in Caroline County, but leased land he owns in Essex County for gas drilling. He leased Kinloch farm, his 1,486-acre spread that’s dotted with rolling hills and soybean fields.
Lee loved the open space so much, he put 1,100 acres of the farm into a conservation easement with Virginia Outdoors Foundation so it could never be developed.
His agreement says mining, an industrial activity, is prohibited on easement land because it’s designed to maintain the rural character. But VOF agreed that rigs and equipment could be placed on his land outside the easement—or on a neighbor’s property, then a horizontal drill could run into his easement land to access the natural gas.
The VOF has changed its policy regarding possible drilling in April. It no longer accepts easements on land where owners have retained rights to drill for oil or gas.
Lee worked in carpeting all his life with his father and sister until they sold the family business, R.C. Lee’s Carpet One, in 2003. Since then, he’s done a lot of work on Kinloch, putting in trails, ponds and food patches for wildlife.
He’s got a big barn filled with trophies from his outdoor exploits. A couple times per year, he hosts a party in the barn with a live band.
As environmental groups and public officials have held informational meetings about fracking, Lee has been disappointed to hear mostly negative information. Speakers from near and far have talked about water contamination from chemicals used in the process of fracking, as well as earthquakes and damage to roads and farmland.
“How do you find the other point of view?” he asked.
For instance, he has heard a lot of people upset about how much water is used to drill wells in the Marcellus Shale area of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Each well requires up to 6 million gallons of water, and there can be several wells on a 40-acre property.
Lee knows several farmers who irrigate, and he sees large pipes on their property that draw massive amounts of water from the Rappahannock River.
“How much water are they using?” he wondered.
In 2013, farms and businesses, towns and water treatment plants in the region used an average of 16 million gallons per day, according to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Water was drawn from the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers and their tributaries.
Lee says the decision to allow gas drilling is in the hands of county officials, and he hopes they do their homework.
“If the county is gonna allow it, then so be it,” he said.
KING GEORGE: GEORGIA PHILLIPS
Georgia Phillips’ past, present and future is wrapped up in her King George County land.
Her father bought the farm, fields and forests when she was about 8, and she’s lived there ever since. People who owned the place a century before her are buried in the backyard, along with her husband, Devanent, who died in 2002.
Her name is engraved on his tombstone, along with her birth date of 81 years ago.
“Miss Georgia” has always been a fireball, a person who knew how to make a dollar and wasn’t afraid of hard work. She served as postmistress at Ninde, in King George, for more than three decades and worked with the post office for almost half a century.
When she retired, she started a greenhouse operation and sold shrubs and plants from her backyard. She was 73 at the time.
She’s also outspoken and doesn’t hesitate to share her thoughts about the possibility of natural gas drilling—although she believes drillers are more likely to find oil than natural gas.
She says people who worry that drilling will cause gas or oil to seep into the groundwater must be “about the dumbest people there are. Don’t people realize the gas is a lot deeper in the ground than the water?”
She had the same reaction to concerns that chemicals used in fracking might leak from trucks or storage ponds and pollute water and land.
“I don’t believe that for a minute,” she said. “I think that’s a bunch of baloney, and you can put that in the paper.”
She leased her land for exploratory drilling in the 1980s, when a Texas oil company first drilled exploratory wells in the region, and had several occasions to work with representatives over the years. Once, workers needed a place to store some big planks of wood, so she let them use a piece of her property for $300 per month. That arrangement lasted almost a year.
Another time, she went around with landmen as they talked with residents about leasing. She notarized documents that were signed—and made $20 on every deal.
“I had a grand time,” she said.
She’s not at all worried that gas or oil drilling might turn her 100-acre farm into a heavy industrial site.
“If they give me enough money, they could drill right in the front yard, if they wanted to,” she said.
Miss Georgia also believes the United States needs to produce its own gas and oil instead of buying from the Middle East.
“I can’t understand why in the world we are going overseas and buying oil from people who hate us, who absolutely hate us,” she said. “Why can’t we have our own drilling here? It certainly would be good for King George.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425