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Fracking North Carolina: Why Now?

Butler #3 natural gas well in Lee County.
Ray Covington

North Carolina has never been a player in natural gas production, but that could change thanks to a new extraction process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking involves cracking shale rock to release natural gas so that it can be pumped out of the ground. This story is the first in a special “Fracking North Carolina” series. 

There’s a North Carolina sound that only a few dozen people have ever heard: gas escaping from a well in Lee County.

Standing in front of a well called Butler #3, you can see that it’s a shut-in well, which means it’s been capped with something called a “Christmas tree.” The Christmas tree is only about five feet tall; it’s painted green and it has three shut-off valves coming out of it. It’s set up this way so people can come back and attach pipes to it, but it has been shut off since the 1990s.

Butler #3 was drilled in 1998, one of several wells dug over the years in Lee County by oil and gas prospectors. To understand how this gas got here we need to look at its ancient history.

“North Carolina, 230 million years ago was basically just north of the equator,” says Vincent Schneider, Curator of Paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.*  “All the continents at this time formed this one super continent called Pangea. As it was forming in the southern hemisphere, it was actually starting to split apart in the northern hemisphere. Before it actually pulled away, it stretches. And that stretching produced a large rift valley filled with lakes.”

Exposed Triassic Basins in North Carolina formed over over 200 million years ago, where natural gas could be located.
Credit NC DENR
Exposed Triassic Basins in North Carolina formed over over 200 million years ago, where natural gas could be located.

Algae and other living things in these lakes died and sank to the bottom. Over time, enough pressure and heat turned them into natural gas, which became trapped in shale rock.

People have known about the presence of natural gas in North Carolina for a long time. So why are some in a hurry to drill more wells now?

For starters, the new technology of hydraulic fracturing is very effective at mining so-called shale gas. Geologists estimate there are nearly 1.7 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable gas in North Carolina. And the recent economic downturn has given new urgency to turning this gas into dollars.

“Lee County has traditionally had a higher unemployment rate than the surrounding counties, because we’ve been very heavily reliant on industrial manufacturing over the years,” says Jim Womack, chair of the Mining and Energy Commission, the body that’s developing regulations for the natural gas industry in North Carolina.

“With heavy reliance on industrial manufacturing you also end up with the problem of higher poverty levels and lower median family income. You introduce the oil and gas industry, all of a sudden your restaurants and motels are full and business is booming.”

Womack is right about Lee County. As of January, its unemployment rate remained stuck above 12%. But the jobs argument isn’t completely convincing to people like Bill Tatum, former chair of the Lee County school board. Especially since that total of 1.7 trillion cubic feet is less than a state like Pennsylvania produces in just one year.

“It’s not a deposit deep enough and enough cubic feet of gas to sustain long term,” Tatum says. “Three to four years, people will make higher wages. Human nature; they’re going to buy automobiles or Harley Davidson’s or houses that you know they can afford while they’re working. But if it doesn’t last four or five years there’s gonna bust.”

Womack responds this way: “You know there is a fair criticism of this particular industry because it doesn’t typically bring with it a lot of or a very large number of long-term new jobs. The long-term economic gain to the county is not necessarily in, you know, a large number of new jobs but rather on the economic productivity from the ground. The landowners, the mineral rights owners, they profit handsomely from that and that money typically gets reinvested back in the county for other purposes.”

People who own their mineral rights stand to make a lot of money. But at what cost?

Hydraulic fracturing creates millions of gallons of toxic wastewater, which is a chief concern for a lot of people. Tatum is also worried about the general quality of life in Lee County.

“The roads are going to be very crowded,” he says, “It’s going to be very crowded with heavy equipment, tandem-axel trucks, water tankers, to and from the well site.”

The price of natural gas has reached all time lows lately, around $4 per thousand cubic feet. Some in the industry believe it will have to reach $5 or higher before drilling is economically feasible here. With high production in other states keeping prices low, that could take many years, a delay that might buy the state some time to figure out exactly what the benefits and costs of hydraulic fracturing really are.

Up next on our Fracking North Carolina series: what to do with all the wastewater created by fracking.

*Note- We incorrectly identified the museum as the "Museum of Natural History" on the air and in an earlier version of this post.

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