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Editor’s note: House Bill 242 was re-referred on April 19 to the Committee on Finance with a mandate to study natural gas hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
RALEIGH — Movement in North Carolina on fracking — a controversial method of using water, sand and chemicals to drill for natural gas — will be limited largely to study of the issue this year, and there are no immediate plans to legalize new drilling methods, state Rep. Mitch Gillespie said April 12.
Gillespie, R-McDowell, plans to release a bill today calling for that study, and he said it won’t be controversial. It will include some changes to existing law, such as how the state handles bonding for well operations, but its focus will be a formal study on fracking, he said.
“I expect for 120 people (the full House of Representatives) to vote for this bill,” said Gillespie, who is vice-chairman of the House Environment Committee.
Larger changes could come as soon as next year, though, and Gillespie said his bill will “set the stage for us for the next step.”
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a process that involves drilling thousands of feet into the earth and using water, sand and chemicals to break up shale and release natural gas. It’s been a growing practice for some years now, and it’s not federally regulated, though Congress has ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study the process.
There are at least 100,000 fracking wells in the United States now, according to Vikram Rao, a former Halliburton scientist now heading the Research Triangle Energy Consortium. That number is likely to grow as the push continues to lower the country’s need for foreign oil.
“It’s going to be a plentiful resource, I think that’s pretty much a given,” Rao said Tuesday, during an informational meeting on fracking at the state legislature.
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There are no known deposits of shale gas in Western North Carolina. Gillespie said he got involved because of his interest in energy and environmental issues. In North Carolina, the Dan and Deep river basins are thought to have quite a bit of natural gas trapped in their shale, particularly in Lee County where companies already have been buying mineral rights from local land owners.
Vertical fracking — that is, drilling straight down several thousand feet — is already legal in North Carolina, according to Bill Holman, a former head of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources now at Duke University. But vertical fracking is inefficient when it comes to natural gas.
Horizontal fracking, where the well takes a hard turn after several thousand feet and then extends several thousand feet more horizontally, can bring more natural gas to the surface. That is illegal in North Carolina, and as the state considers lifting that ban it can learn from mistakes others states have made, Rao said.
The process uses roughly 6 million gallons of water per well, and it leaves that water very salty, Rao said. It also uses hazardous chemicals that drilling companies have been unwilling to identify because they are proprietary. And while some property owners have grown rich by allowing drilling, others have said the process poisoned their wells.
But Rao, who used to oversee drilling operations, said Tuesday that there’s no contamination when wells are drilled and sealed properly. Technology is evolving to ease other environmental concerns as well, he said.
Gillespie said he remains “frightened” by fracking, and that his “mind is not set” on the process’ role in North Carolina’s energy future. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said more discussion is needed.
“I think you’ll see us looking at a full menu of options to try to create a new jobs sector (in energy) in North Carolina,” Berger said.
Rao and Holman gave their presentation on a busy Tuesday afternoon at the state legislature, and only a handful of legislators attended. Several environmental lobbyists were there, including Sam Pearsall with the Environmental Defense Fund. Pearsall dubbed Rao as “a technology optimist,” expressing some doubt that fracking can be made truly safe.
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For more about fracking and natural gas, check out:
- The N.C. Geological Survey report on shale gas potential in state (September 2009)
- The Institute for Southern Studies-Facing South story from February 2011 about environmental groups pressing Tennessee to regulate fracking.
- Geology.com’s information about shale gas resources throughout the world and fracking, or hydraulic fracturing.
- Fracking/hydraulic fracturing information on the EPA’s website
- The EPA Draft Plan to Study the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources (February 2011). This 140-page report may take a minute to load.