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Originally published: 2012-03-23 09:46:22
Last modified: 2012-03-23 09:50:54

NC environmental agency says fracking can be done safely

by Anna Oakes

A draft report issued by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources March 16 said hydraulic fracturing for natural gas can be done safely in the state with the correct standards in place, but that more information is needed.

“DENR believes that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely as long as the right protections are in place,” the report's executive summary states. “A number of states have experienced problems associated with natural gas exploration and development because the appropriate measures were not in place from the beginning — forcing both the state and the industry to react after damage had already been done.”

The report follows a study of the potential environmental, social and economic impacts of shale gas exploration and development in North Carolina. Last year, the General Assembly enacted Session Law 2011-276, directing DENR, the N.C. Department of Commerce and the N.C. Department of Justice, in conjunction with Pittsboro-based nonprofit Rural Advancement Foundation International, to study the issue of oil and gas exploration in the state and to specifically focus on the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (also known as “fracking”).

The report's executive summary includes 20 specific recommendations, including environmental standards and areas for additional research.

Findings from the report will be presented during two public meetings. The first took place in Sanford on Tuesday, and the second is scheduled for Tuesday, March 27, at the East Chapel Hill High School auditorium from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. The meeting will be streamed live online at https://its.ncgovconnect.com/denr_shale_gas. 

The final report to the General Assembly is due May 1.

Most of North Carolina's identified natural gas resources are located in the Piedmont, including the Deep River Basin, which extends from Granville County south to Union County. Within this basin is the Sanford sub-basin, which the report calls the “most promising location for organic-rich shale and coals from which natural gas can be extracted.” 

Other identified basins are the Dan River Basin in Stokes and Rockingham counties and the Davie Basin, which straddles Yadkin and Davie counties.

Hydraulic fracturing involves drilling a well vertically and then horizontally into the shale formation. The natural gas production company perforates the well and then pumps fracturing fluid (composed of 98 to 99.5 percent sand and water plus chemical additives) into the well under pressure to fracture the shale.

Hydraulic fracturing requires between 3 and 5 million gallons of water per well, the report notes. However, based on informed assumptions, “there appear to be adequate surface water supplies to meet the needs of the industry” in the Sanford sub-basin, the report said.

As to the economic impacts of natural gas drilling in the sub-basin, “it remains uncertain how much wealth, income or benefits from long-term employment would accrue to Lee, Chatham and surrounding counties,” the report states. One model estimated drilling activities in the Sanford sub-basin would sustain an average of 387 jobs over a seven-year time period and increase economic output in the state by $453 million.

The report acknowledges the study's shortfalls, including limited data on gas deposits and groundwater impacts.

“We do not have detailed or comprehensive information on the extent and richness of the shale gas resource in North Carolina. For purposes of this report we have been forced to extrapolate from data gathered from only two wells in the Sanford sub-basin.” The Sanford sub-basin represents only a fraction of the Triassic basin formations in the state — approximately 59,000 acres out of a total of 785,000 acres, the report states.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently studying the impacts of hydraulic fracturing's impacts on groundwater and drinking water, but its first report is not expected until later this year.

“The limited time available to prepare this report prevented us from taking into account additional research that is currently underway,” the DENR report said. “To our knowledge, no comprehensive studies are currently available on the long-term impacts to health from hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, and DENR is not qualified to conduct such a study.”

Public comments will be accepted at both meetings as well as via mail and email. Written comments on the draft report will be accepted through April 1, in addition to any feedback received at the two public meetings. Written comments can be sent via email to Shale_gas_comments@ncdenr.gov or through the mail to NCDENR, attn: Trina Ozer, 1601 MSC, Raleigh, NC 27699.

To view the report, visit http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/guest/denr-study.