RALEIGH, N.C. — Enough shale-gas reserves may lie beneath North Carolina’s surface to feed the state’s demand for natural gas for more than five years, according to a state environmental agency’s estimate based on 2010 data.
Last week, in line to fire the starter’s pistol on fracking, the drilling method used to extract shale gas, were state Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, and other Republican state lawmakers, including Sens. Joyce Krawiec of Kernersville and Andrew Brock of Davie County. In the Senate, they helped sponsor a bill — the Energy Modernization Act — that would allow fracking to start as early as next summer.
“I would urge that the members of the Senate support this effort as we move closer to energy independence for North Carolina, economic growth and job creation. That is part of what this bill does. It is one tool in the quiver that we are making North Carolina the premier economy in the entire country,” Rucho said, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
Opponents of the bill cautioned that many questions remain about the impact that fracking may have on public health and the environment. They questioned why the Senate would pass the Energy Modernization Act because it would allow fracking to start before a full legislative review of proposed rules on fracking operations being drafted by the state Mining and Energy Commission (MEC).
Those rules have come under greater scrutiny as reports of fracking’s impact are revealed from other states. In Ohio last month, state officials have linked fracking with earthquakes. In Texas, a couple recently won a lawsuit claiming that pollution from fracking made them ill. In North Carolina, one of the main concerns raised by conservationists is that the proposed MEC rules do not fully deal with the massive amounts of wastewater that will surely come from fracking operations.
Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, voted against the bill.
“The consideration on this bill ought to be about ensuring that we’re going to have clean drinking water in this state. And there’s no precautions that we can take that are unreasonable when it comes to making sure that we do have clean drinking water in this state. … We have to be very careful that we don’t do anything that’s going to harm the water supply,” Blue said.
The bill passed in a third, final vote of 36-11 and could be taken up by the House as early as this week.
Consequences of fracking
Fracking — short for hydraulic fracturing — is a drilling method that uses extremely high pressure to inject a concoction of water, sand and chemicals thousands of feet below the Earth’s surface to dislodge natural gas from shale rock.
Once the fracking creates cracks, the gas moves to the surface.
Fracking has helped spur an energy boom by freeing enormous reserves of natural gas, and the work has generated jobs and profits. Still, fracking operations have been linked to groundwater contamination, air pollution, heavy truck traffic and the release of spent fluid, or “flowback.” Some of the chemicals in the flowback include acids, polyacrylamide (reduces friction) and glutaraldehyde (disinfectant). Concerns about the environmental and public health concerns have been buttressed by documented cases of fracking’s impact in other states.
In Ohio, for the first time, geologists linked earthquakes in a geologic formation deep under the Appalachians to fracking. A state investigation of five small tremors in March in the Youngstown area, in the Appalachian foothills, found the injection of sand and water that accompanies fracking in the Utica Shale may have increased pressure on a small, unknown fault, according to state officials.
In Texas, a couple got $3 million in damages from the gas drilling company Aruba Petroleum, the Dallas Morning News reported last month. Spills and emissions from the company’s fracking operations contaminated their ranch, and the pollution made the couple sick, as well as their pets and livestock, the newspaper reported. Ailments included asthma, nausea, nose bleeds, ear ringing and depression.
As North Carolina has headed toward shale-gas exploration, state lawmakers have said that they would maintain a moratorium on fracking until they could review proposed environmental rules being drafted by the MEC, something which the Senate-approved bill would override, opponents stress.
“Senators are breaking the promise they made in 2012: to consider lifting our moratorium only after all the questions are answered, and rules have been developed,” said Elizabeth Ouzts, the state director of the nonprofit advocacy group Environment North Carolina.
Wastewater is a big concern
Conservationists say it is all the more important that North Carolina get its rules set before fracking begins. The drilling method is largely unregulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and reductions in manpower are already straining the ability of N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to regulate industry.
One of the issues that must be dealt with is what to do with the waste, according to conservationists.
Grady McCallie, the policy director at N.C. Conservation Network, said that while DENR and state lawmakers deserve some credit for opposing the waste-management method of injecting wastewater into the ground, neither the Energy Modernization Act nor the proposed MEC rules deal sufficiently with the large volumes of wastewater that will come from fracking.
Several options have been used in other states besides underground injection: wastewater treatment facilities; trucking the waste to storage in underground pits or above-ground tanks; recycling in other fracking operations; and disbursing treated fluids on vegetation or spraying it on roads, a practice known as road-spreading.
In a 484-page report released by DENR in 2012, the state environmental agency points out the potential uses and flaws. For example, recycling may be effective in other states, but it is not a good fit for North Carolina because of the proximity between water supplies and shale reserves, the report says.
“By contrast (to other states), water supply wells up to 1,000 feet deep have been found in North Carolina’s Triassic Basins, and the depth to saline water, if present at all, is unknown. Additionally, in some areas, the shale that might be tapped for natural gas in the Triassic Basins of North Carolina lies at depths of 3,000 feet or less. These factors all point to a much greater potential for contamination of a future potential water supply,” the report says.
Road-spreading would not be a good fit, either, the reports says.
“Unlike many western states where ‘road-spreading’ of wastewater is allowed, North Carolina has a large network of streams and wetlands; road drainage features would in many instances direct the wastewater to surface waters,” the report says.
One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Krawiec, the state senator whose district includes Yadkin County and parts of Forsyth, said that rules for waste-management practices were being hammered out by the MEC.
“It will be monitored closely and is regulated by MEC rules,” Krawiec said, referring to waste from fracking.
Large gas reserves in N.C.
On the sidelines sits an oil and gas industry ready to drill.
Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed $21 billion 2014-15 budget includes money for shale-gas surveys that would be done through a public-private consortium, with industry stakeholders picking up most of the overall cost of about $3 million, according to state budget officials.
Art Pope, the budget director, said in an interview two weeks ago that $500,000 has been allotted to drill in areas believed to have deposits of shale gas reserves. Tests would be done to fine-tune the state’s current estimates of reserves, he said, stressing that the proposed drill sites would not be used for fracking.
Current estimates suggest that in the Deep River Basin, an area that runs about 150 miles from Granville County southwestward to South Carolina, there are an estimated 1.66 trillion cubic feet of gas and 83 million barrels of natural gas liquids – the source for more than five years of natural-gas use based on 2010 data, according to DENR.
Chatham, Lee and Moore counties likely have the largest reserves of shale gas, according to state and federal geologists, but some reserves may also exist in Stokes County. Current estimates suggest that for the Dan River-Danville Basin, which includes Stokes, there are 49 billion cubic feet of gas but no natural gas liquids.