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Despite Drilling, Fracking Far From Imminent In NC


News that state environment officials were drilling near the Dan River last week to look for oil and gas caused a stir. One headline read: “North Carolina Wants To Frack In Small Town Already Struggling With Coal Ash.”

North Carolina has spent several years and significant effort to open the state to fracking, but that doesn’t mean drilling is imminent. The state paid a contractor to drill a hole in Stokes County— about 30 miles south of the Dan River spill, although upstream of the coal ash contamination.

“It’s just to find out if the resource is there or not there and how extensive it is if it is there,” says Tracy Davis, director of the state Division of Energy, Mineral, and Land Resources.

Three rock formations under North Carolina look like they could contain oil and gas. The most significant stretches from Durham to Anson Counties. There’s also the Cumberland-Marlboro basin east of it and the Dan to the Northwest.

To get a clearer picture of what resources they contain, lawmakers included about a half-million dollars in the past two budgets for testing.

“It could answer a lot of questions both for us as an agency on the environmental end, as well as industry and the public for whether it’s even a viable option for a company to do any drilling in a given area,” says Davis.

So far, the industry has not shown interest; not a single company has applied for a drilling permit.

University of Texas at Austin energy professor Michael Webber says that makes sense.

“The timing is unfortunate,” says Webber. They’re just now getting on the bandwagon as things are slowing down a little bit.”

With energy prices so low—first natural gas, because of the fracking boom, and now oil—Webber says companies have little financial incentive to start new wells.

“So it might mean there’s no action for a little while in North Carolina,” says Webber. “Because their resource isn’t as big and isn’t as cheap as some of the other ones that are already in action.”

Credit usgs.gov
This U.S. Geological Survey map shows estimated resources in the United States by geologic province. The Piedmont Province, which includes North Carolina's three basins is highlighted (added). North Carolina has relatively little natural gas, compared to the main areas of drilling in the United States.

  The state has little oil and gas infrastructure, but more importantly very little oil and gas. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the richest stretch in the middle of the state has about one percent the reserves of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale rock formation.

Even if the new tests were to show unknown bountiful resources, fracking still couldn’t begin immediately. A wider dispute between Governor Pat McCrory and the General Assembly over executive power has caught the state environment agency in its web.

Until it’s resolved, a judge told state regulators not to issue any permits for fracking – even if a company were interested.