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Update: Carolina Public Press has learned the location of the proposed study area. Read that story, which was published Nov. 21, here: “State agency gives contradictory accounts on WNC gas exploration but reveals area of interest”
For the first time, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources has said it plans to study a site in Western North Carolina to assess its feasibility for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The exact location of the site has not been disclosed.
The study plan was revealed Nov. 13 in testimony by DENR Assistant Secretary for the Environment Mitch Gillespie, a former state representative from McDowell County who is a major fracking proponent, before the state legislature’s Environmental Review Commission. (See a copy of Gillespie’s presentation below.)
As part of an “update on energy issues” for the commission, Gillespie presented a provisional list of fracking-feasibility studies that DENR plans to conduct. Most of the sites on the list are located in the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain, areas of the state previously identified as the ones most likely to hold deposits of natural gas that could be extracted by fracking. But the list included a rare mention of a site in the mountain area, identified only as a “precambrian rift basin” in “western NC.”
The location of the site was not specified. Neither Gillespie nor the DENR communications office has responded to queries from Carolina Public Press about the location.
According to Gillespie, DENR plans to spend $11,725 to examine the site. In his remarks to the commission, he elaborated: “If you look there in Western North Carolina, there’s a possible basin out there. And we’re going to go out there and grid the county off, a section of the counties off, out there, and go to the highways and the road cuts … to see what the rock looks like, and actually pick up some rocks.”
“We’re looking from Murphy to Manteo, across the state, like the General Assembly told us to, to find our resources,” Gillespie added. He stressed that millions of dollars worth of testing would have to be conducted before any site is judged suitable for fracking.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican who sits on the Environmental Review Commission, said after the hearing that the mention of a site in WNC was the first he’d heard, and that he doesn’t know what location Gillespie was referencing.
“It was new to me,” McGrady told Carolina Public Press. “I was interested to hear that. Nothing that I’ve seen in the geology has suggested anything in Western North Carolina (would be a conducive location for fracking), unless it’s up right along the North Carolina/Virginia border, sort of east of Boone.”
McGrady said he plans to contact Gillespie and ask what WNC location will be studied, but for now, “I don’t know what to make of it,” he said.
Katie Hicks, the Asheville-based assistant director of Clean Water for North Carolina, a nonprofit group that opposes fracking, said she was also surprised by DENR’s sudden interest in a WNC location.
“There have been rumors going around, very recently, about potentially some sort of small area of shale gas up in the mountains,” she said. “But rumors only, so we’re just trying to learn more about that.”
Fracking is a method of extracting natural gas by pumping water and chemicals deep underground to release the gas. Its use is increasingly widespread but remains controversial due to environmental and health concerns.
In North Carolina, fracking was legalized in the summer of 2012, but the legislature has maintained a moratorium on granting permits for the procedure until rules and regulations can be developed. Meanwhile, the Raleigh News & Observer reported this week that a Texas-based company is set to begin major pre-fracking studies in three counties in the Piedmont.
More of Carolina Public Press’s reporting on fracking can be found here, including: