Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the name of a center at Duke University. This article has been revised to reflect this correction. Reesenews apologizes for the error.
A controversial technique for drilling natural gas may soon be put to use in the Triangle area.
The technique, known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has been blamed for environmental damage in other states.
Under current state laws, fracking is illegal. The law prevents horizontal drilling, a component of the fracturing process. Regulations against underground waste injection also prevent shale gas from being extracted.
But some North Carolina state legislators have proposed bills to permit studies on the effects of hydraulic fracturing, which could lead to a change in regulations. Overturning current laws would allow gas and oil companies to begin drilling. Already, reports of natural shale gas reserves have spurred oil and gas companies to buy up land and mineral rights in Chatham, Lee and Moore counties.
History of hydraulic fracturing
As early at the 1940s, oil and gas companies such as Standard Oil and Haliburton began using hydraulic fracturing. Today, the states of Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, and West Virginia, located above the gas-laden Marcellus Shale rock formation in the northeast, bear the biggest brunt of industry extraction efforts.
Geologist estimates have determined that the Marcellus Shale contains between 168 and 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. To put this number in perspective, North Carolina used approximately 245,000 million cubic feet of natural gas in 2009 — less than 1 percent of gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale.
“North Carolina has an existing law that prohibits horizontal drilling, which limits fracking, so we have the opportunity to be thoughtful and not rush into development of this industry before we’re ready,” said Bill Holman, director of state policy at Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.
The North Carolina Geologic Survey released a study in 2008 that identified more than 59,000 acres for prospective exploration, mainly in the Deep River Basin located in Chatham, Moore and Lee counties.
Although the reserves in North Carolina are more modest than those in the Marcellus Shale, Lee County records show that companies such as WhitMar Co., an oil and gas exploration company from Colorado, have already bought thousands of acres of mineral and land lease rights.
Whether North Carolina has the infrastructure and resources to handle this industry is one of the many topics under debate. Regardless, the state is unlikely to see major change this year.
“The state is unprepared to regulate the industry today,” Holman said.
The process and complications
Much of the opposition to hydraulic fracturing is centered on the process itself. This complex method of gas extraction retrieves natural gas from several thousands of feet under the surface. Extraction companies pump a mixture of water, gas and chemicals into the earth at high pressure, causing fractures to open and release the gas. Gas may continue to flow for as many as 10 years, according to Chesapeake Energy.
Rachel Lang-Baldé, the outreach coordinator at the nonprofit organization Clean Water for North Carolina, said using this method to retrieve natural gas would require more state resources and regulation than North Carolina can afford.
“The ideal of using it to get to a green fuel economy seems kind of silly," Lang-Baldé said. "I don’t think that ideal ever exists in reality.”
Lange-Baldé added that the lack of information concerning the potential for accidents or possible effects on the environment or public health is also concerning.
“Obviously gas prices are going up, so people are concerned about that and about using too many oil resources from other countries, but we need to look long term at what the impacts will be and if the negative will outweigh the positive in North Carolina,” she said.
Oil and gas companies are not as willing to take chances when it comes to North Carolina’s potential resources. In February, Kenneth Taylor, assistant state geologist at the N.C. Geological Survey, estimated that almost 10,000 acres of Lee County land have already been leased to drilling companies by landowners.
“These companies are approaching landowners and attempting to lease mineral rights in areas deemed to have natural gas because they expect the laws governing hydraulic fracturing will change in the near future,” said Jordan Treakle from the Rural Advancement Foundation International - USA. “They’re trying to buy mineral rights before this law changes so that in the future they will be able to start drilling as soon as laws change.”
Treakle said that the economic benefits of fracking are unlikely to last. The influx of workers, equipment and resources will boost local economies only temporarily, he said.
“I think what we’re going to see eventually is regulation that requires disclosure of what’s in fracturing fluids,” said David Spencer, co-director of the Energy Management and Innovation Center and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Oil and gas companies involved in hydraulic fracturing are exempt from requirements to report hazardous materials on site to the Environmental Protection Agency. The industry has also been exempt from regulations that limit the injection of waste into underground wells to protect drinking water.
Both Spence and Lange-Baldé agree that research, such as the ongoing study by the EPA to be released in 2012, could have a large impact on the future of fracturing.
“If North Carolina is going to do this in any way, it seems reasonable to get all the facts on the table,” Lange-Baldé said. “To push for it before we see all the impacts or have the research to back it up seems irresponsible.”
Researching risks and benefits
Some members of the state legislature seem to have begun to push for information about the industry and its potential impact. North Carolina Rep. Mitch Gillespie recently introduced a bill to the state legislature proposing a study on hydraulic fracturing and natural gas in North Carolina.
With gas companies buying up mineral rights in thousands of acres in Lee County and the surrounding areas, the time has come to take action, Gillespie said in a phone interview.
“By doing nothing, what will happen is those gas companies are going to start lobbying the general assemblies because they’re tying up thousands of dollars in leases,” Gillespie said. “They’re going to come down to the General Assembly and flood the building in droves, and try to lobby members into changing laws so that you can do this type of drilling.”
But the majority of environmental damage and drilling-related accidents can be avoided, according to industry advocates.
“There have been some instances of blowouts at the well and other normal industrial accidents, it’s something we’re working on obviously,” said Chris Tucker, the spokesperson for nonprofit organization Energy In Depth, an advocate of the method. “Unfortunately, if someone stubs their toe at a hydraulic fracturing site, they blame hydraulic fracturing — even if it hasn’t even happened yet, or happened years ago.”
Tucker and Holman both said that the hundreds of feet of impermeable rock separating fracturing activities and groundwater tables mean the risk of contamination is minimal.
“I would agree that if it’s properly designed, drilled, cased and plugged, the threats of groundwater pollution should be reduced,” Holman said, adding that natural gas could, however, contaminate water without proper oversight and execution.
As long as this method of gas extraction is illegal in North Carolina, researchers have an opportunity to collect baseline data that other states lack. An examination of current well chemical compositions would help identify the impact of fracturing if laws are overturned, he said.
The ability of these natural gas reserves to provide substantial amounts of energy to North Carolinians — energy less environmentally damaging than coal — is also a point made by both experts and advocates of the technique.
“Natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, and so it can help us generate cleaner electricity, replace fuel for coal and provide cleaner transport fuel than oil,” Holman said.
Despite the reality that North Carolina is unlikely to see regulations restricting hydraulic fracturing overturned in the near future, if at all, the debate is likely to continue as North Carolinians research potential effects on the state.
As a state legislator, Gillespie has received criticism for what some skeptics perceive to be an indirect way to promote hydraulic fracturing. However, he said that with this bill, that is not the case.
“I’ve said from day one that if it’s not safe and we can’t do it safely, I’ll stop pushing for it and I’ll work against it.”