County's potential for fracking is undetermined

Mar. 07, 2013 @ 04:23 PM

Hydraulic fracure mining is all over the news lately, but what does it mean to Union County?

We lie at the end of the underground Deep River basin, where the U.S. Geological Survey believes there are large deposits of oil and natural gas. But scientist found that the basin is so shallow here that it is unlikely it holds these deposits.

"The Deep River Basin in Union County is very shallow and has very little, if any, prospectivity for producing economic volumes of natural gas," said USGS research geologist James Coleman.

The average estimated depth of oil and gas deposits is between 3,000 feet to 6,000 feet under the subsurface, Coleman said.

The basin extends from Granville County, N.C. on the northeast to the very southeastern tip of Union County on the southwest, Coleman said.  Parts of the basin might extend farther southwestward, but would be too shallow to hold large oil and gas deposits.

The same is probably true of the basin under Union County soil, but exploratory drilling has not been performed here and so potential is just an estimate, Coleman said.

Since geologists found little potential for subsurface oil or gas in Union County, there should be no concern about hydraulic fracturing of exploratory oil and gas drill holes, Coleman said. But private companies might do their own drilling to determine the basin's length for certain. A more detailed study would determine where and how a potential company would likely drill to extract resources that we have estimated to be in the state.

"I would expect any company potentially interested in drilling North Carolina will do their own 'due diligence' and determine for themselves what the resource potential is," Coleman said.

Union County will probably not see active hydraulic fracture mining, but areas with confirmed oil and gas deposits lie nearby.

"Union County is about 80 miles southwest of Lee County, where many of the wells which reported oil and gas shows are located," Coleman said. "This may be the closest point; however, very few wells have been drilled southwest of Lee County, and until wells are drilled in those counties, it is impossible to say how potential those counties will be."  

Until state-permitted drilling is approved, exactly how much of the resources are where is still largely undetermined.

"One or more points between Lee County and Union County may be drilled and if or when they are, then we will know about the hydrocarbon potential of that drill site.  So, just about every place between Lee County and Union County has undetermined potential," he said.

What is Fracking?

Hydraulic fracturing, often shortened to "fracking", is a mining method where pressurized water mixed with sand and chemicals break, or fracture, underground rock formations to extract oil and natural gas. It starts by drilling a well deep into the earth, according to EnergyFromShale.org. A seriest of tubes, or casings, are inserted to stabilize the shaft. Cement is poured between the shaft and the casing to protect layers of rock and water from mining contamination.

Once the drilling reaches the layer of shale that encapsulates oil and gas, the direction changes to horizontal to target specific layers of rock containing oil and gas. The shaft is perforated and mining operators pump in pressurized water, sand and chemical mixture. The mixture causes small cracks in the shale layer. The sand holds open those cracks while water extracts oil and gas, which collects in the horizontal shaft.

Fracturing fluid contains .49 percent chemical additives to improve gas and oil extraction, according to EnergyInDepth.org. Those chemicals include acids, sodium chloride, potassium chloride, potassium carbonate, proppant, ispropanol, polyacrylamide, n-Dimethyl formamide and glutaraldehyde.

Hydraulic fracturing can pose environmental risks, according to EnvironmentalWorkingGroup.org. The process can release hydrocarbons that were previously trapped underground. Problems with the mining shaft can cause fluids to contaminate the ground water. Large amounts of water is needed to extract oil and gas. Fracking causes a lot of waste, which required proper disposal. Research points to the possibility of spent fracturing fluid containing uranium, radium, radon, and thorium. It is possible for freed gases and fracturing fluids to seep through the ground up to the surface. Hydraulic fracturing can also cause small earthquakes and tremors.

Fracking law

A bill legalizing fracking, setting up a state permitting and environmental oversight committee and outlining how energy companies would be taxed for drilling in North Carolina passed the Republican-led Senate last week. It contains several points that opposition groups cite as unfairly benefitting mining companies and energy companies. According to the Institute for Southern Studies, the bill removes the state geologist from the committee writing the regulations, legalizes deep-injection waste disposal and prohibits local governments from taxing energy companies that operate wells in their jurisdiction.

Public tension between the Mining and Energy Commission and an advisory panel increased when the commission chairman said the panel was getting "too big for its britches" in January. Debate continues to rage between groups over who should decide the state's regulations and what environmental protection and landowner authority to include.   

Good or bad?

There are plenty of people on both sides of the issue.

N.C. Energy Forum is one of the organizations touting the economic potential of legalizing hydraulic fracturing. There are already 135,000 energy industry jobs in the state, according to the group's website.

"So imagine how many ADDITIONAL jobs could be generated if we developed the rich stores of energy that are on and off the shores of our state.," it reads.

It predicts the creation of thousands of well-paying jobs in the long-term, billions of dollars in revenue for the state government and a boom in road and infrastructure construction. The mining method is federally regulated and has been tested by more than 60 years of operation, N.C. Energy Forum states.

The N.C. Chamber of Commerce is another proponent.

 “If we want to compete in the future, we need to take action on a comprehensive energy supply plan with appropriate protective measures and tough standards that safeguard our quality of life values," said Lew Ebert, president and CEO of the North Carolina Chamber.  North Carolina is currently positioned to take advantage of energy production through hydraulic fracturing."

Opposition groups continue to voice their concerns. Members of the Anson County-based Pee Dee Water, Air, Land & Lives make regular calls and appearances to their elected local and state officials, board member Denise Lee said.

"We still do not have good guidelines or rules about this process, but the General Assembly has put this bill on a fast track," Lee said. "These are the regulations that are supposed to protect the people living here against water and air pollution and well-water contamination. We've very concerned about what will be done with all the waste products."

But she feels that their concerns are not heard by legislators.

"We're so out-funded by the energy lobbyists and their money that it's very hard to get our message out there," Lee said. "When you start talking about large amounts of money, lawmakers begin to poo-poo the risk and the science behind it. I think they're making these decisions based on how much money they can make instead of common sense."