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Lots Of Unknowns On Fracking's Future In North Carolina

U.S. Energy Information Administration

Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—for natural gas in shale rock has radically changed the nation’s energy mix. Since the fracking boom began in 2008, the cost of natural gas has plummeted and supply has surged. The technique is banned in North Carolina, but a bill that passed last year and another currently making its way through the legislature would open the door.

At UNC-Charlotte’s Energy Production and Infrastructure Center, legislators, academics, industry, and environmentalists gathered at a fracking forum to discuss what that could mean for North Carolina.

The common answer:

“Nobody really knows.”

No one knows the impact because no one knows how much natural gas is trapped under the state. The estimates that do exist suggest it is relatively little, especially compared to the Marcellus shale, the rock formation that stretches down most of the northeastern United States. But Mitch Gillespie, North Carolina’s Assistant Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, a fracking advocate, says the state needs to do some test drilling to determine the true extent of its reserves. He thinks that will happen soon in Lee County in North Carolina, where estimates place the largest resources.

“The sweet spot could be huge,” Gillespie says. “We just won’t really know until we do get some exploratory wells in there. And, in my opinion, there will be exploratory wells dug this year in Lee County.”

Even if the lowest estimates are right, there would be enough gas to sustain North Carolina for two years. At the high end, proponents say it could create a new energy industry for the state—and that means jobs. Some panelists at the forum threw cold water on that idea.

“Unless there is a base of people in North Carolina that has those skills, those jobs are going to be from out of state,” says Fred D’Ambrosio a senior manager at the oil and gas company Hess.

D’Ambrosio says that can stimulate a lot of economic activity though. He gave the example of North Dakota, where towns have doubled in population because of fracking, increasing demand for restaurants and services.

“I’ve been in the local Walmart, where they don’t have people to stock,” D’Ambrosio says. “They actually have to put all their products out on the floor on pallets, and they import people on cycles from other parts of the country to spend two week rotations to work the cash register.”

But, D’Ambrosio also made clear that he was not representing his company at the forum, because Hess does not have plans to drill in North Carolina—an indication of a couple potential problems.

The shale gas boom has made the fuel so cheap that there’s questionable incentive for companies to drill new wells. And, other states have more promising reserves, so when companies do drill, they might not start here.

And, then there are the environmental concerns. Environmental and health advocates often target the fracking process—shooting high pressure water, sand, and chemicals into the ground—as the prime hazard. But, everyone at the forum—environmentalists, businessmen, and lawmakers—said the bigger question is what do you do with that water once it comes out of the ground?

“You’re going to have issues later on,” says Chris Hardin, an engineer with consulting firm Haley and Aldrich, and a professor at UNCC. “You’re going to run out of places to put the water. This is well understood in the Marcellus shale belt. It’ll be happening here.”