North Carolina Rep. Mitch Gillespie (R) of Marion represents McDowell and Burke counties. Photo courtesy of Gillespie via the N.C. General Assembly.

WNC lacks natural gas deposits, but local legislator wants fracking so North Carolina can become energy-producing state

This image from the N.C. Department of Natural Resources’ hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, study shows where natural gas deposits are in North Carolina.

Proponents of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, are gaining ground in their bid to legalize the natural gas mining practice in North Carolina, thanks to help from Western North Carolina state legislator Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a Republican from Marion.

The Clean Energy and Economic Security Act was approved last week in the Senate. A retooled bill, aided by new language from Gillespie, was approved by the House Environment Committee Wednesday. The full House approved the amended version of the bill Thursday evening, sending it back to the Senate.

The bill authorizes the creation of a Mining and Energy Commission, which would be charged with developing regulations to address hydraulic fracturing, the process of injecting millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand at high pressure into underground shale formations, forcing out the natural gas they contain.

But the bill stops short of immediately authorizing fracking in North Carolina, said Gillespie, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and is vice chairman of its Environment Committee.

“If you look at this bill, it has recommendations for (creating) regulatory language by January 2013…meaning it would be July 2014 best case – and more likely July 2015 – before we could start,” he said.

Once the rules for fracking are established, he said, the practice still has another hurdle to cross, namely, legislation authorizing the state to issue permits for fracking.

There are no known natural gas deposits within 100 miles of Gillespie’s district, which includes portions of McDowell and Burke counties. Natural gas deposits are thought to be held underground in shale rock formations, mainly in Lee, Chatham and Moore counties.

But Gillespie said he is pushing for fracking because he sees it as a statewide, energy-production issue.

“This is a statewide issue, and energy production is an issue that I think North Carolina should be involved in,” Gillespie said. “I want to put North Carolina in the energy-producing business.”

“I think we’ve wasted decades…when we should have been looking at natural gas extraction or oil drilling off the coast of North Carolina,” he said. “We need to quit talking about light bulbs and energy-efficient appliances and start talking about doing something that actually creates energy.”

Opponents of fracking in North Carolina argue the bill makes statutory changes and launches massive rulemaking without key studies recommended in a recent report on fracking completed by the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

“What we have now is the will to move forward as quickly as possible to get an oil and gas program in place,” said Hope Taylor, director of Clean Water for North Carolina. Echoing the concerns of numerous environmental groups, she worries about the lack of science-based regulatory standards for the practice. “The scope of fracking has grown so fast,” she said, “there’s no way regulatory systems can keep up.”

Fracking has been associated with well-shaft blowouts, chemical spills, drinking water contamination and other problems, resulting in complaints and agency fines in other states. Oil and gas production activities are exempt from a number of federal environmental statutes that apply to similar industrial activities, and while some states have developed regulations to cover the practice, environmental groups argue that none have demonstrated that fracking can be done safely.

Environmental regulation debated

North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ study of fracking for shale gas offers hundreds of recommendations, among them that energy companies should disclose the chemicals they inject into wells. The report concluded that additional studies are needed, but proponents have latched on to its statement that shale gas can be harvested safely “as long as the right protections are in place.”

Gillespie co-chairs the state’s Environmental Review Commission, which sets the Legislature’s environmental agenda. Like the N.C. General Assembly as a whole, that group now has a Republican majority. Many of these lawmakers have stressed their interest in eliminating what they see as unnecessary duplication in state and federal statutes regulating businesses; environmental rules have been repeatedly cited as a particular impediment to commerce.

Taylor attributes Gillespie’s interest in fracking to a larger, anti-regulatory agenda that has gained traction since the GOP takeover of the legislature in 2010. “Legislators from places without shale gas in their districts see the oil and gas industry as having resources to support legislators who want to perpetuate an anti-regulatory agenda,” she said.

As evidence of this trend, Taylor cited Gillespie’s leadership last year in weakening state air-toxics regulations, while making them applicable to fewer industries.

“I do want to cut out regulations,” Gillespie told Carolina Public Press. “I think the Department of the Environment needs to be changed further, and its priorities set differently.”

He said proposed fracking legislation incorporates every recommendation from the DENR report, as well as three of the four recommendations from the state Attorney General.

Gillespie said his interest in gas exploration has evolved over several years, starting on a field trip with a state geologist, who speculated that North Carolina might harbor shale deposits containing natural gas.

His interest grew, he said, because of what happened in Lee County: In 2010, energy companies were snapping up the rights to underground natural gas from scores of property owners, after indications of natural gas deposits surfaced. “People were leasing their land for three to four dollars an acre,” Gillespie said. “It’s like, ‘if I want to make a million dollars, I need to go to Lee County and take advantage of these people.’ ”

Fracking’s impact on water continues to be a major issue for its opponents. On the front end, the operation consumes large quantities of water. Oil and gas companies in Ohio are drawing water from nearby ponds and streams to feed their operations; the Columbus Dispatch reported in March that companies were trying to buy water from public reservoirs.

Meanwhile, the prospect of contaminating water supplies through fracking operations is repeatedly identified as a concern by environmental groups, as well as in DENR’s report.

On the question of water protection, Gillespie said, “I’ve been very proud of the water legislation that I’ve passed over the years. DENR feels that we have enough safeguards in place in this bill that it will not harm our water supply.”

And while Gillespie admits that chemical contamination of surface water or soils is a possibility, such as, through a spill or a well blowout, “there’s no way to craft legislation to prevent that.”

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Susan Andrew is contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at

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