Lee County mulls fracking

Residents torn between money, potential risks

ccampbell@newsobserver.comJuly 6, 2012 

An old covered bridge stands next to a restored grist mill on N.C. 42 west of Sanford. The rural community that surrounds the old mill could soon be Lee County's biggest site for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Photographed July 8, 2012.

COLIN CAMPBELL — ccampbell@newsobserver.com

— In the weeks leading up to the N.C. General Assembly’s vote to approve fracking, Lee County property owner Charles Oldham had a natural gas company knocking on his door.

The company wants to drill test wells on a tract of loblolly pine forest that Oldham owns west of Sanford. But Oldham said he’s not yet ready to cash in on mineral rights. He’s a bit suspicious of the companies involved in the practice of hydraulic fracturing. The process pumps water mixed with chemicals into well bores at high pressure to fracture solid rock and release the natural gas trapped inside.

“I’d like for us to get the regulation in place and see where that goes,” Oldham said Sunday.

Last week, the General Assembly overrode Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto of fracking legislation, which paves the way for natural gas extraction within several years. The practice could transform Lee County, which sits atop the shale basin that energy companies have been eyeing for decades.

Land records show dozens of property owners along N.C. 42 west of Sanford have already signed mineral-rights agreements. Among them is Lee County Commissioner Nathan Paschal, who’s been getting a $200 yearly check for the past 10 years. In return, energy prospectors can run tests on his 100-acre property, though they haven’t yet. Any drilling would require another contract.

“It’s good for the landowner because I don’t have the money to drill the holes and get it out myself,” Paschal said.

N.C. 42, also known as Carbonton Road, runs for miles through dense pine forests past the occasional farm or cluster of homes. The biggest attraction this side of Sanford is a restored grist mill and covered bridge maintained by local families.

Nearly every property owner along the two-lane road has heard from energy companies. “They’ve drilled several test wells in this area, and those test wells all proved out,” property owner George Schloetzer said. “That’s the reason that they’re very anxious and they’re very interested in purchasing the leases for as much of this land as they can.”

Many of the residents here are open to the idea of fracking, but some want more assurances before they sign on. They’ve heard troubling stories from fracking sites in Pennsylvania.

“When they started drilling for gas out there, several people got stuck with a bill for clean-up if the well did not prove out,” Schloetzer said. “I want to make sure I’m not going to get stuck with a bill.”

Others worry about contaminated groundwater: the biggest concern for fracking opponents is pollution because of chemical spills, well blowouts or underground seepage.

“You don’t want to sign up for something, and then you’re going to have to move because you can’t drink the water,” Carbonton Road resident John Wilkins said.

Multiple companies have sent Wilkins detailed legal agreements, but he won’t sign because he says “it would take a Philadelphia lawyer” to figure out the terms. Plus, he figures he might make more money if he waits. “My thinking is when it gets really serious, they’ll be talking about more than a few dollars per acre,” he said.

Oldham, who owns property nearby, expects to join a shale basin owners’ group led by Sanford businessmen to secure better terms.

While some see a payout and a much-needed boost to the economy, others see an environmental disaster looming. The grassroots group Save Our Sandhills recently approved a resolution opposing fracking. Among the reasons: they say Central North Carolina is too drought-prone to supply the water required, each well requires five to eight acres of land, and fracking causes air pollution and minor earthquakes.

“Pumping thousands of gallons of toxic fluids into the ground beneath us is going too far,” said the group’s president, Joe McDonald. “There just may be some natural gas you can’t get to without going beyond a rational level of risk taking.”

Despite last week’s vote in the legislature, no one’s likely to cash in anytime soon. The bill creates a special mining and energy commission to create safety provisions to govern fracking in the state. The recommendations – subject to another vote – could take up to two years to complete.

Lee County has two elected officials serving on the commission, welcome news to leaders there who want a say in the process. County Commissioner Charlie Parks said the companies involved need to be responsible for building infrastructure and cleaning up the sites. “We don’t want the county to have to do that,” he said.

Campbell: 919-836-5768

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