Energy on the horizon: Debate on drilling still hypothetical, but groundwork is being laid
From the oil fields of North Dakota to the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania, the U.S. oil and gas industry is booming in a way that few would have predicted 20 years ago.
Energy extraction is now possible — and financially viable — in regions it wasn’t before. Energy deposits, primarily of gas, that were once too hard or expensive to tap are being opened up with the combined technology of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, called fracking.
Now, there’s a chance that energy exploration could be coming to Western North Carolina, pending the results of a study set to begin next year. The U.S. Geological Survey will begin researching WNC’s potential for mineral development in July 2015, an effort funded by the N.C. General Assembly.
There are other signs that North Carolina could be getting in the energy game in the future. The state reconstituted its Energy Policy Council a few months ago and this month named its first-ever fulltime energy policy advisor. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources also has a new Mining and Energy Commission.
N.C. DENR Secretary John Skvarla called energy a “neglected economic sector” in the state and said energy exploration is a priority for Gov. Pat McCrory.
Do we want it?
Whether exploring for oil and natural gas in WNC would be a good thing depends on whom you ask.
Energy extraction would be a win-win for everybody, according to James Womack, chairman of N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Mining and Energy Commission and county commissioner in Lee County, which currently has two completed natural gas wells.
It brings money to the state government through taxes from energy companies and economically benefits residents in the form of jobs, lease money and increased patronage of local businesses. He’s seen it done in Texas and Pennsylvania, he said, without impacting aesthetics or tourism.
“This is a tide that floats all boats,” he said.
But Katie Hicks, assistant director of Asheville-based Clean Water for North Carolina, isn’t as enthusiastic about this new direction as people like Womack are. Lucrative as it may be in the short-run, she said, it’s not clear whether the long-term consequences are worth it.
“Our organization lives by the precautionary principal,” she said.” Until there is a lot more evidence on both sides, we feel like the burden should be on the industry to prove that it’s safe.”
Earlier this month, Hicks gave a presentation to the Macon County League of Women Voters in Franklin, which hosts monthly talks on local and state issues.
Hicks spent an hour detailing her concerns about horizontal drilling and fracking, concluding that the industry has yet to answer many questions the technology raises about environmental safety and cultural stability.
“It’s nerve-wracking to think this could be happening in the western part of the state,” she said.
There’s no question that horizontal drilling is a complicated process, a reality that causes some people to marvel at the capacity of modern technology while others see merely a large capacity for something to go wrong.
When a horizontal well is drilled, the wellbore extends deep into the ground until it reaches the target formation, perhaps as deep as two miles below the surface. Then, the bore turns to continue horizontally, extending laterally as far as one or two miles. The wells are insulated with layers of tubing and casing to act as barriers, protecting the water table from infiltration.
In the fracking part of the operation, explosives are injected to create fractures in the rock along the horizontal section of the wellbore, and water bearing a mixture of chemicals and sand is injected to hold the fractures open, allowing oil or gas to flow out.
Then, of course, there is the surface part of the operation, which requires a wellpad of about five acres and a constant stream of trucks to bear construction materials, heavy machinery, frack fluid and the roughly 3 million gallons of water needed for each stage of fracking.
The rule-making process
There are a lot of variables involved, but that’s why the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission was formed, Womack said. With the proper rules and safeguards in place, he said, it’s possible to build a framework that allows North Carolina to reap the economic benefit of an energy industry without sacrificing its beauty or cleanliness.
“Everyone on the board believes it can be done safely,” he said. “We believe the benefits far outweigh the cost, that the cost is measureable, and the cost can be recovered.”
Womack cites a trip he took to Bradford County, Penn., which is experiencing some of Pennsylvania’s most intense drilling.
“I had to almost get on top of the wells before I could see them,” he said.
While Womack is confident the commission can formulate rules to regulate industry effectively, the commission, formed in July 2012, is supposed to write 130 rules in time for public comment beginning in September 2014. So far only 14 are completed, 59 are in progress and others haven’t been started, according to N.C. DENR’s website.
Hicks is concerned that the September deadline for rules-writing won’t give the commission enough time to consider each rule thoroughly.
“We’re not confident that the Mining and Energy Commission, within the timeframe they have to make these rules, will be able to put the correct safeguards in place,” she said.
Energy potential in WNC
Whether the fracking debate that has played out nationally will ever apply directly to WNC depends on the results of the energy reserves study.
“We don’t know for sure what might be there, but I guarantee we’ll be sure to find some mineral of one type or another,” Womack said.
Womack, whose resume includes 30 years as an engineer, believes that the oil-rich Marcellus Shale could extend as far south as North Carolina’ mountains, but Taylor is nearly certain that the region’s mineral resources will be limited to natural gas, if anything.
“If [the rock has] been cooked just a little bit, it will be oil,” he said. “If it’s been cooked a little more, it will have oil and gas. If it’s been cooked just a little bit more, it will just have gas.”
WNC’s geologic history includes too much cooking for oil deposits to be likely, he said. Hicks, too, suspects WNC would likely see the indirect, not the direct, impacts of energy development in North Carolina. Namely, increased truck traffic on the highway — and the accompanying emissions — as well as taxpayer money spent on regulating the industry. While some mineral-rich states derive the majority of their revenue from the taxes that energy companies pay, Hicks said that a similar result in North Carolina is unlikely.
“The evidence of there being significant kickbacks seems slim,” she said.
But it’s impossible to know for sure.
“All we know right now,” Womack said, “is we don’t know what’s in Western North Carolina.”
Probing WNC’s hidden energy reserves
The first step in energy exploration is figuring out what exactly lies below the earth’s surface.
North Carolina lawmakers have commissioned an energy study set to start next year that will do just that.
“If there is carbon in the rock and the rock has been heated to several thousand degrees, then potentially there will be gas in the rock,” said Kenneth Taylor, N.C. state geologist.
But “potentially” is the key word, because it all depends on how much the rock was heated back when a continental rift formed the mountains 600 million years ago, and on whether the rocks are porous enough to hold onto whatever carbon deposits were left there — if, in fact, those deposits still remain.
In 2015, scientists will begin collecting rocks from road cuts along a transect extending from Clay County to the Tennessee line. Then, a geology lab will analyze the rocks to determine the carbon content, with 1.4 percent as the magic number. If a rock’s carbon content comes in at 1.4 percent or more, that means it could be a source rock, Taylor said.
The General Assembly appropriated $11,725 from the 2015-16 budget for this phase of the study. If it turns out there’s nothing there, that’s as far as it will go.
However, if the USGS deems WNC as a potential location for fossil fuel exploration, the next phase will begin: analyzing core samples of rock in the region. In other words, geologists would take a vertical sample of earth to assess what kinds — and how much — of hydrocarbons are down there. If the deposits are significant, energy development could come to WNC.
“It’s very difficult to do [and] very expensive,” said James Womack, chairman of N.C. Department of Energy and Natural Resources’ Mining and Energy Commission and county commissioner in Lee County, which currently has two completed natural gas wells. “Unless someone has a reason to believe there are deposits, they don’t bother.”
The dynamic duo of fracking and horizontal drilling
If you’re looking to extract fossil fuels from the ground, you’ve got your pick of ways to do it. But the technology that’s exponentially expanded the U.S.’s energy potential over the past decade or so it the combination of horizontal drilling with fracking, both of which technologies have been the subject of media attention and scrutiny. If energy exploration did eventually occur in Western North Carolina, that’s probably how it would be done.
Horizontal wells typically start out plunging one to two miles underground before hitting the oil- or gas-bearing formation, called the pay zone, and then turn to extend horizontally through it, sometimes as far as two miles.
During the fracking stage of the operation, explosives are injected to create fissures in the pay zone rock, and frack fluid — a combination of water, chemicals and sand — is added to prop the cracks open, allowing any oil or gas the rocks contain to flow into the wellbore and up to the surface.
But while horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have been around individually for decades — the first experimental hydraulic fracturing treatment in the U.S. took place in 1947 and the first horizontal well was completed in 1929 — it’s only been the last 10 or 15 years that two have been merged together.