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Virginia Senate panel OKs offshore drilling, fracking bans

January 22, 2020 GMT

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A Virginia Senate committee on Tuesday advanced measures that would ban offshore drilling as well as hydraulic fracturing in much of eastern Virginia.

Similar versions of both measures have been proposed in previous years but died in what was then a Republican-controlled General Assembly. Democrats who took control of both chambers of the legislature in November’s elections have pledged to enact stricter environmental laws.

“I think elections have consequences, and one of the consequences is a cleaner environment for Virginia,” Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said after the votes.

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The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources approved Democratic Sen. Scott Surovell’s measure prohibiting hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — in the Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management Area on a 10-5 vote.

Fracking is a technique that allows energy companies to extract huge volumes of oil and gas from shale rock deep underground. It involves injecting high-pressure mixtures of water, sand or gravel and chemicals into rock. Fracking opponents say the chemicals involved threaten water supplies and public health.

Surovell sponsored a similar bill two years ago. It died in a committee on a tied vote.

He said that the bill was necessary to protect the Potomac Aquifer, a drinking water source for millions of Virginians, because a company has signed leases to frack in the Taylorsville Basin. Surovell also said he wants to prevent any other company that might seek to acquire a lease.

Environmental advocates urged lawmakers to pass the bill. Representatives of the Virginia Petroleum Council and the Virginia Oil and Gas Association were the only speakers to oppose it, arguing it was unnecessary and that fracking can be conducted safely.

The vote on the offshore drilling ban sponsored by Democratic Sen. Lynwood Lewis was 11-3. Environmental groups also supported that bill, which was opposed only by the Virginia Petroleum Council.

In addition to prohibiting drilling leases, easements, or permits on the beds of state waters, the measure also removes policy statements in state code that say Virginia supports federal efforts to permit offshore oil and gas developments.

In Virginia, the possibility of drilling off the Atlantic seaboard has brought together a diverse group of opponents who say it could threaten the state’s tourism industry and hinder the military, which has a huge presence in Hampton Roads. Proponents say it will boost economic development.

The measures still must advance through the full Senate as well as the House and be signed by the governor.