Senator E.S. “Buck” Newton, R-Johnston, Nash and Wilson counties, believes North Carolina should begin fracking as soon as possible.
“North Carolina does not have that energy sector right now,” Newton said. “We have a coal mining tradition that is now defunct. There is no reason why our state shouldn’t embrace and encourage [the fracking industry], knowing it takes a while to get started. We’re missing a tremendous opportunity every day we delay.”
Newton is one of three primary sponsors of Senate Bill 76, a bill that would lift the state’s moratorium on fracking and allow it to begin issuing permits as early as 2015.
Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is the process of pumping water, sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressure into shale rock foundations to release natural gas. While the practice has frequently found itself in hot water due to environmental concerns, it has developed into a well-established industry in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas, where drilling has turned up large pockets of natural gas.
Just how much natural gas is trapped in the shale rock formations in North Carolina?
The area being looked at for natural gas exploration is the Deep River Basin, a 150-mile-long shale rock formation located underneath the Piedmont region, which cuts diagonally across Lee and Chatham counties.
The U.S. Geological Survey conducted the most recent official study in 2011 into how much gas could be there. Because no wells have actually been drilled in the region, the study was conducted based on analogs, or test wells, in similar geologic locations. It estimated there is a 95 percent chance there is 779 billion cubic feet of natural gas in the Deep River Basin, and a 5 percent chance there is 3 trillion cubic feet.
Bob Milici, geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, described 3 trillion cubic feet as an “in-your-wildest-dreams number.”
“Still, that’s not what I would consider a lot,” Milici said. “It may support a small field or several small fields, but it’s nothing compared to the Marcellus.”
The Marcellus Shale is a 95,000 square-mile shale rock formation that covers West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, southern New York and a small portion of Canada. Experts estimate it could contain 500 trillion square feet of natural gas resources.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimated the Marcellus Shale contained 1.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2002.
“The Marcellus Shale, which has provided a huge boost to the economies of Virginia, Pennsylvania … was originally estimated at 2 trillion cubic feet, an estimate virtually identical to that of North Carolina,” Newton said. “With the Marcellus Shale, they didn’t know how big it was going to be until they started exploring. When they did, they realized it was a lot bigger than they thought it was going to be. All because they thought it was worth exploring.”
Newton could not point to a specific study, but said oil and natural gas industry professionals and geologists he has spoken with estimate there could be as much as 40 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Deep River Basin.
“If 2 trillion cubic feet will produce three to five years worth of gas, that’s a lot of gas,” Newton said. “That could have a huge long-term economic impact on our state.”
Grady McCallie, senior policy director of the North Carolina Conservation Network, said he had no idea where Newton’s estimate of 40 trillion cubic feet came from.
“There are a number of officials that really want to find a source of economic growth,” McCallie said. “They really want what they are hoping will be good for their community. The numbers don’t really bear that out at this point. There’s one set of motivations there. It may be helpful for people who just want to talk about fossil fuels to not look at the North Carolina data.”