At last week's League of Women Voters forum, Katie Hicks from Clean Water for North Carolina spoke to those in attendance about the process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” its implementation here in North Carolina and some possible effects it could have on the environment.
The issue has been garnering a lot of attention since last summer when Senate Bill 820 legalized hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.
Fracking as explained by Hicks, is a method of extracting natural gas that involves injecting high pressure fluids thousands of feet deep with a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to break up shale formations and release natural gas.
“In order to do this, each frack will use two to eight million gallons of water,” said Hicks. “And when that water is recovered, it is usually contaminated with chemicals which is where Clean Water for North Carolina comes in. Our mission is to promote clean, safe water.”
According to Hicks, in North Carolina, shale basins, which is where natural gas is found, are shallow, discontinuous, and fractured compared to major shale formations in other states. The formations are also close to groundwater supplies which are used for drinking water wells. When high pressure fracturing occurs, toxic natural chemicals like benzene, heavy metals and radioactive materials could lead to contamination of these water supplies.
So far, there have been two assessed shale basins in the state by the N.C. Geological Survey; the Deep River Basin and the Dan River Basin, both in the piedmont area of the state. When a basin has been assessed, it means that a geologic analysis has been performed to determine the amount and extractability of a potential mineral resource. According to the analysis of the Deep River Basin, there is an estimated 1,660 billion cubic feet of gas. Based on the 2010 natural gas consumption in N.C., this could meet the state's demand for up to 5.6 years if 100-percent of the reserves can be accessed. The Dan River Basin is estimated to contain 49 billion cubic feet of gas, which, if what Clean Water for N.C. says is true, means that it would last up to 60 days.
Now, the N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (NCDENR) have seemingly directed their attention towards a tract of land in WNC called the Murphy Belt which encompasses Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. In November 2013, Mitch Gillespie, NCDENR Assistant Secretary asserted that $11,725 would be used to study a site in the area in order to determine whether WNC could eventually see hydraulic fracturing.
“Other sources have assured us that no money for a study has been appropriated and no study plan has been developed,” said Hicks.
NCDENR Draft Report
In 2012, officials from NCDENR released a draft report detailing their position concerning the process of hydraulic fracking. According to the report, hydraulic fracturing can be done safely as long as the right protections are in place prior to issuance of any permits for the practice. Some recommendations included were:
NC Mining and Energy Commission
As a result of Senate Bill 820, the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission (MEC) was also established to develop a modern regulatory program for the management of oil and gas exploration and development activities in the state including the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
“Drilling companies claim that at least part of their frack fluid mixtures are 'Trade Secrets' and exempt from public disclosure,” Hicks said at the LWV forum. “In accordance to the 'Halliburton Loophole', lobbyists contacted some state senators and they drafted a bill to prohibit any disclosure to the state agency. People called their representatives and the Senate backed down, but a new version of the chemical disclosure rule went to the MEC in early December.”
Another controversy that was discussed at the forum was the MEC's recommendation concerning compulsory pooling that states, “In the interest of protecting the correlative rights of landowners and minimizing waste, the Study Group recommends that compulsory pooling be allowed where 90-percent of the owners of the surface acreage of a drilling unit have voluntarily leased or consented to developing their oil and gas rights.”
According to the NC Conservation Network, typically natural gas drilling companies sign leases with landowners allowing them to frack and extract gas, but often companies can't get leases on all of the adjacent properties that they want to put a well on. Under compulsory pooling a drilling company can petition the state to fold these other properties into the drilling unit. The drill is then required to pay those landowners a share of the profits from the well, minus the costs of drilling the well, and sometimes also minus a penalty designed to discourage neighboring landowners from holding out.
Once the MEC is able to hammer out the details of the regulations that contractors and pipeline companies must follow in order to drill and fracture, a moratorium will be lifted to allow operations to take place.
The MEC will be holding public meetings throughout 2014 in which those who are interested in voicing an opinion or gaining more information about fracking in N.C. can attend. The full schedule can be found at http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/mining-and-energy-commission/2014-meeting-schedules-and-agendas.