Fracking’s future

Drilling for natural gas in North Carolina appears feasible, but people and the environment must be protected.

March 25, 2012 

North Carolinians were mining coal in the 18th century and began drilling for oil in 1925. Yet today we’re not even a minor player in coal or oil. Natural gas, however, has emerged as a new opportunity. What will its future be?

The release of a state agency’s draft report on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the drilling technique used to unlock natural gas (and oil) in underground shale-rock formations, offers a hefty helping of answers.

Many are tentative, awaiting further comment or testing in the field. Some will prove controversial – mainly the draft report’s bottom-line conclusion that “hydraulic fracturing can be done safely as long as the right protections are in place.”

That finding hits close to home for Triangle residents, because the likeliest targets for fracking in North Carolina are close by, in what’s known as the Sanford sub-basin of the Deep River geologic basin. The most promising sites lie in Lee, Moore and Chatham counties.

Yet what’s most striking in the appropriately comprehensive report assembled by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (and the Commerce Department) is just how much work would have to be done to put those “right protections” in place.

No haste, no waste

Even then – after assessing the underlying geology, setting up from scratch a new system of regulating hydrocarbon drilling and putting in place specific protections for drinking water supplies, landowners and the general public – “It is not likely,” the report soberly notes, that North Carolina’s shale gas potential will be unlocked anytime soon. Meaning, in the next few years at least.

Experts in the drilling industry don’t expect it to happen, and current low prices for natural gas, caused by a fracking-induced boost in natural gas supplies nationwide, weigh against it.

So for all the urgency the largely pro-drilling General Assembly attached to the issue last year, North Carolina, it appears, has time to get fracking right. That – and not a rush to jump-start production or gain an edge by undercutting other states’ regulations – should be our aim. Here are three key aspects of doing so:

First, water is a huge issue. Fracking uses a lot of it, and central North Carolina is not especially water-rich. The DENR draft report terms surface water supplies “adequate” but says the pace of well development would have to be geared to the fluctuations in water availability. It’s of utmost importance that streams be protected and that existing water users not be disadvantaged.

Groundwater risks

Water contamination is the other side of the story. Fracking, because it injects chemicals underground, holds the potential to foul aquifers and water wells. In other states, there’s a big separation between groundwater resources and the shale layers that contain natural gas, but that distance is “very different” – that is, much less – here.

That’s a warning flag, as is the cost of adequately treating the salt-contaminated water that flows from producing gas wells.

Second, not all landowners in the basin will lease their property for drilling, either from choice or unfavorable geology. It’s especially important that those abstainers be shielded, via adequate setbacks and the like, from the worst effects of what amounts to an industrial operation – heavy-duty drilling – on nearby land. A bonanza for some property owners should not come at others’ expense.

Finally, to deal with these and the host of other potential pitfalls fracking could bring – along with the welcome and useful “home-grown” natural gas it promises – the state must assign the regulatory duties to the right agency. Some states have special oil and gas commissions, but writing on the opposite page last week, Rob Jackson of Duke and former DENR head Bill Holman argued persuasively that DENR is best suited to doing the job with safety foremost in mind.

Without that, the gas might as well stay right where it is.

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