It isn’t just anti-fracking opponents who believe the state’s quest to identify natural gas deposits in Western North Carolina is a bad idea.
“I think it’s a waste of money. The rock formations in the west are not conducive to shale gas,” said Republican state Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon County, who co-sponsored the bill that lifted North Carolina’s moratorium on fracking.
N.C. House Rep. Nathan Ramsey, R-Buncombe County, is actively trying to stop the state Geological Survey from collecting rocks in the seven westernmost counties. The former chairman of the Buncombe County commissioners broke ranks with his party last spring in opposing the Davis-sponsored legislation.
“Whether you are for fracking or against it, this is not a good use of money,” Ramsey said about the sampling plans. “There is no recoverable natural gas in WNC. The state needs to be focusing its resources on where there may be some.”
North Carolina could allow fracking companies to begin work in the state as soon as May 2015.
Ramsey said he tried, unsuccessfully, to include a provision in the state budget that would have redirected state geologists away from collecting the rocks. He also questioned the state Mining and Energy Commission’s decision to hold a fracking hearing Sept. 12 at Western Carolina University.
“It is like having a hearing on saltwater fishing in Cullowhee,” the state lawmaker said.
The plan to collect samples from the far-western counties has galvanized anti-fracking opponents. They fear fracking could contaminate drinking-water supplies. Supporters counter the combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling is safe when done properly. Companies inject, at high pressure, a cocktail of chemicals and water into rock, shattering it. This allows them to extract natural gas through the fractures.
Collecting rock samples from Jackson and the six other westernmost counties has a projected cost of $11,725.
Sampling is expected to occur in the next few months, according to Bridget Munger of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The rock will be taken from state highway right of ways. No drilling will take place, according to state Geologist Kenneth Taylor.
A contracted company will test the rock collected. High organic content is key; anything less than 1.4-percent total organic carbon means no natural gas potential exists. Findings above that threshold would trigger additional analysis.
The 1985 Geologic Map of North Carolina shows seven formations in WNC that interest the geologists, Taylor said, with map descriptions that include “dark gray,” “graphitic,” sulfidic” and “slate.”
Frank Ettensohn, a geologist at the University of Kentucky who is working as an Embassy Science Fellow on energy issues in Ukraine, conducted some of the research that triggered natural gas interest in WNC. Ettensohn said, via email, that rocks on the surface in WNC are mostly igneous and metamorphic and would not have high organic content.
“However, at one time, about 470 million years ago, parts of a deep-sea basin, in which organic-rich rocks may have been deposited, might have been present in parts of WNC,” he wrote. “Those rocks may have been thrusted (pushed in large blocks) farther to the west or may have been overridden by the Blue Ridge, which is also thought to have been thrust (or pushed in large blocks) to the west, during later mountain-building events. If so, these organic-rich rocks might underlie parts of the Blue Ridge, which would take some substantial drilling to reach.”
Ettensohn said the Triassic basins in the central portion of the state, the area that most interests pro-fracking legislators such as Davis, were formed “and filled with terrestrial sediments (including organic-rich lake sediments) when North America separated from Africa during the breakup of the supercontinent Pangea.”
The state’s plan includes assessments in counties ranging from Pasquotank in the northeast to Anson in the south central part of the state.