North Carolina Rep. Mitch Gillespie (R) of Marion represents McDowell and Burke counties. Photo courtesy of Gillespie via the N.C. General Assembly.

Editor’s note: House Bill 242 was re-referred on April 19 to the Committee on Finance with a mandate to study natural gas hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

RALEIGH — Movement in North Carolina on fracking — a controversial method of using water, sand and chemicals to drill for natural gas — will be limited largely to study of the issue this year, and there are no immediate plans to legalize new drilling methods, state Rep. Mitch Gillespie said April 12.

Gillespie, R-McDowell, plans to release a bill today calling for that study, and he said it won’t be controversial. It will include some changes to existing law, such as how the state handles bonding for well operations, but its focus will be a formal study on fracking, he said.

“I expect for 120 people (the full House of Representatives) to vote for this bill,” said Gillespie, who is vice-chairman of the House Environment Committee.

Larger changes could come as soon as next year, though, and Gillespie said his bill will “set the stage for us for the next step.”

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a process that involves drilling thousands of feet into the earth and using water, sand and chemicals to break up shale and release natural gas. It’s been a growing practice for some years now, and it’s not federally regulated, though Congress has ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to study the process.

There are at least 100,000 fracking wells in the United States now, according to Vikram Rao, a former Halliburton scientist now heading the Research Triangle Energy Consortium. That number is likely to grow as the push continues to lower the country’s need for foreign oil.

“It’s going to be a plentiful resource, I think that’s pretty much a given,” Rao said Tuesday, during an informational meeting on fracking at the state legislature.

Natural gas in N.C.

There are no known deposits of shale gas in Western North Carolina. Gillespie said he got involved because of his interest in energy and environmental issues. In North Carolina, the Dan and Deep river basins are thought to have quite a bit of natural gas trapped in their shale, particularly in Lee County where companies already have been buying mineral rights from local land owners.

Vertical fracking — that is, drilling straight down several thousand feet — is already legal in North Carolina, according to Bill Holman, a former head of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources now at Duke University. But vertical fracking is inefficient when it comes to natural gas.

Horizontal fracking, where the well takes a hard turn after several thousand feet and then extends several thousand feet more horizontally, can bring more natural gas to the surface. That is illegal in North Carolina, and as the state considers lifting that ban it can learn from mistakes others states have made, Rao said.

Vikram Rao is executive director of the Research Triangle Energy Consortium. Photo courtesy of RTEC.

The process uses roughly 6 million gallons of water per well, and it leaves that water very salty, Rao said. It also uses hazardous chemicals that drilling companies have been unwilling to identify because they are proprietary. And while some property owners have grown rich by allowing drilling, others have said the process poisoned their wells.

But Rao, who used to oversee drilling operations, said Tuesday that there’s no contamination when wells are drilled and sealed properly. Technology is evolving to ease other environmental concerns as well, he said.

Gillespie said he remains “frightened” by fracking, and that his “mind is not set” on the process’ role in North Carolina’s energy future. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said more discussion is needed.

“I think you’ll see us looking at a full menu of options to try to create a new jobs sector (in energy) in North Carolina,” Berger said.

Rao and Holman gave their presentation on a busy Tuesday afternoon at the state legislature, and only a handful of legislators attended. Several environmental lobbyists were there, including Sam Pearsall with the Environmental Defense Fund. Pearsall dubbed Rao as “a technology optimist,” expressing some doubt that fracking can be made truly safe.

For more about fracking and natural gas, check out:

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Travis Fain is a contributing reporter for Wmforo. Contact him at [email protected].

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  1. Um, I'm a long-time card-carrying Republican (hardly the “Luddite fringe left” you speak of) and I view it as a highly controversial practice. Trade clean water for natural gas . . . ? No thanks. You have your facts messed up, DrHorrible: the 60-year-old history of fracking was only in the process of breaking up quarry rocks, and later to increase oil production. Fracking has only been used in the production of natural gas for a short number of years. The big ramp up in use of the process for gas production has been since 2005.

    Take a look at the way Pennsylvania is being ravaged by the drilling frenzy there, and only a wacko would wish that on their state. The fracking fluids produced by the millions of gallons (and disposed of in the Susquehanna River!) contain not only high salinity, and fracking chemicals — there are also Naturally Occurring Radioactive materials (NORMs) such as strontium, radium, and uranium 226. Right now they are dumping used fracking fluid into the river in Shickshinny, and downstream folks are drinking it in Danville, PA. Wanna drink that stuff? I don't think so.

  2. Hydraulic fracturing been done for a few years - if by “a few,” you mean “over 60.”

    It's not controversial except among the Luddite fringe left and their willing dupes in the media.