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When the state’s Mining and Energy Commission visits Cullowhee next month, it’s likely to get an earful about the prospects that fracking might happen a little closer to home than many in Western North Carolina once thought.

State officials told Carolina Public Press this week that, with the passage of the new state budget, they’ll be able to start work testing rock samples from seven WNC counties as soon as September.

Officially, when the Mining and Energy Commission convenes its hearing in Cullowhee on Sept. 12, the public is invited to comment on proposed new rules developed ahead of a legislative mandate to lift the state’s ban on hydraulic drilling and issue permits to fracking companies by July 1, 2015.

Those rules include the full range of the process, including exploration, the number of wells allowed in a given area, chemical disclosure rules, environmental sampling and waste management.

The commission is holding four sessions around the state starting Aug. 20 to take comments on the proposed rules. The draft rules may be viewed and comments can also be sent directly to the commission at the commission’s website:

The stop in WNC is on Friday, Sept. 12 at the Bardo Fine & Performing Arts Center at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. [Click here for more details.] The meeting is scheduled to run from 5 – 9 p.m., with the bulk of the meeting reserved for public comment. This is currently the only scheduled public hearing in this set of meetings to be held in the region.

Vote Check: How NC’s state House, Senate voted on the fracking bill
Fracking study planned for undisclosed site in ‘western NC’

WNC tests starting

When the potential for fracking in North Carolina started gaining traction in the state legislature, the focus was originally on areas of the Piedmont’s Deep River basin in Lee, More and Chatham counties. But tandem with the development of fracking rules and legislation, the legislature pushed for a greater assessment of the state’s potential. The N.C. General Assembly budget $550,000 for two years and directed the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to study other areas that could contain sufficient shale gas deposits.

DENR identified eight regions to be studied using a variety of methods, from sampling geological formations to testing a handful of existing wells. On DENR’s list is a study of rock formations in the Precambrian rift basin, which covers parts of the state’s westernmost counties, including Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain.

Carolina Public Press was the first to report, in November 2013, that DENR officials approved a study of the seven WNC counties because past samples from the N.C. Geological Survey found some potential for the area to contain oil and natural gas deposits.

DENR held off new tests in WNC while officials waited for this year’s budget to be settled. With the budget signed, the department now plans to move ahead with testing of rock samples by the Geologic Survey starting in September, according to DENR spokesperson Bridget Munger.

“They will collect large hand samples from the NCDOT right-of-ways. The date, time and location of the sample will be documented and a sample location photograph will be taken,” Munger wrote in an email. “The samples will be packaged and sent to a laboratory for analysis to determine the total organic carbon (TOC) in the samples. The results from the analyses will be sent to the NCGS when the laboratory has completed the testing.”

In presentations last year at the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission, DENR officials said the test aren’t meant to do more than determine which areas might warrant a closer look.

DENR Assistant Secretary Mitch Gillespie, a former state representative from McDowell County, said the testing in WNC, which he described as picking up rocks along highway cuts, would not be extensive. The department plans to spend $11,725, according to budget figures.

This session, the legislature, at first, looked poised to step up its statewide studies as part of an aggressive attempt to market the state to the industry. But plans to spend $930 million to better identify and market the state’s shale gas potential was dropped during budget negotiations last month.

Rep. Nathan Ramsey
Rep. Nathan Ramsey

Rep. Nathan Ramsey, R-Buncombe, who voted against the bill, said he and other members of the WNC delegation are trying to get their colleagues to reconsider studies in the far west. Ramsey said he and others in the legislation have called for a provision calling for DENR to drop the WNC study.

“It’s a waste of money,” Ramsey said. “Nobody is going to be drilling any wells in Western North Carolina.” Ramsey said.

Instead, Ramsey said, DENR should concentrate on the areas where wells are likely.

“We know where the recoverable deposits are and DENR needs to be spending their time responding to the citizens who are actually going to be impacted by this,” he said.

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Kirk Ross was the former capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. To contact the Carolina Public Press newsroom, email

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  1. i am appalled that they are going ahead with this. Why aren’t we focusing on and spending money on alternative energy measures that are sustainable and won’t wreak havoc on the environment. Big business and greed are going to be the death of us all.