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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.)

North Carolina Rep. Mitch Gillespie (R) of Marion represents McDowell and Burke counties. Photo courtesy of Gillespie via the N.C. General Assembly.
Mitch Gillespie, a longtime fracking proponent from Marion, resigned his state House seat in January to take a senior post in the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Last week, he announced a small fracking study planned for a site in WNC. Photo courtesy N.C. General Assembly.

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.

Read more

More of Carolina Public Press’s reporting on fracking can be found here, including:

Will fracking impact WNC? Enviro group: ‘Not likely’

McDowell’s Gillespie pushes for hydraulic fracturing in NC

WNC legislator says his proposal for formal state study of natural gas fracking will ‘set the stage for us for the next step’

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Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at

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  1. What are these “feasibility” studies other than plain old fracking without the necessary permits or needed investigations? North Carolina needs to invest in clean safe alternative energy. We are just lining the pockets of the tracking pushers, not benefiting our economy or environment or health. What happened to the days when people like Mitch Gillespie would be run out of town?

  2. in a true democracy, a review panel would consist of equal numbers of the pros and cons. with our frack situation the pros have stacked the deck.Let the local people decide if they want this in their BACKYARD.Chicagoans ARE UPSET OVER THE FRACK BYPRODUCTS stored there for transshipping. Who will win there? Only the MONEY.

  3. Yet another reason to be suspicious of the Bill that was ramrodded through our State Legislature, without any concerns for or feedback from the citizens of North Carolina. Our conniving Governor & the Republican held Legislature have sold every citizen of NC, out to the highest bidder. And even now, are plotting as how to make it’s victims pay Big Oil & Gas, to poison us & our natural beauty.

  4. If there was nothing to fear about this, and the government officials authorizing this test knew there was nothing to fear, then these government officials would not have to hide the location.

    It is foolish and short sighted to risk our ground water for energy. If we contaminate the natural resources we have, everyone in the region will be affected causing a loss to investments and steering future development away from North Carolina. Who wants to move to Saginaw or Cleveland or Love Canal.

  5. I was in the room, and this little bombshell came along with other news: municipalities will not be allowed to prohibit fracking within their boundaries. But don’t worry: the universe isn’t perverse enough to put natural gas shale right underneath Asheville, right?

    Um. Helloooo? Universe?

  6. I know the anti-fracking proponents don’t want any drilling done in our state, but that issue aside, what really irritates me is the way Mr. Gillespie casually mentions that is going to cost “…millions of dollars worth of testing would have to be conducted before any site is judged suitable for fracking”.

    I hope this money isn’t coming from the NCDENR? Let the oil and gas companies who are going to profit from the drilling pay for this, not North Carolina taxpayers.

    1. Mr. Gillepsie would love to have, in his own words “a blank checkbook” from the General Assembly to do the industry’s exploration for them.

      And that’s before the hundreds of millions worth of pipeline & other infrastructure that the drillers say they need the taxpayers to cough up for, before they’re willing to drill here.

      All the environmental concerns aside, I say if it’s not economically attractive enough for the industry to pay its own way, why are we even talking about it?

  7. As vocal of an anti-fracking proponent that I’ve been in the last 18 months, it’s a real jolt when the issue comes to rest at my own back door. And yet another wake up call for my neighbors and me.

    Thank you, CPP, for reporting this news.