WALNUT COVE – These days, the Piedmont Triad’s debate over hydraulic fracturing centers on a chunk of ground just a few inches wide at the edge of this small Stokes County town.
State officials plan to drill a “core hole” that size deep into the rock formation under a piece of land the town owns along a rutted, dirt road on the perimeter of a suburban neighborhood.
Depending on what they find, it could be the first step toward opening the region to the controversial and potentially lucrative technique of fuel recovery known commonly as fracking.
Or, it could lay to rest forever the hope or fear — depending upon whom you talk to — that a commercially significant vein of fuel-rich shale runs underground through the Dan River Basin from Stokes and Rockingham counties into south-central Virginia.
“I don’t think we have enough information at this point to say one way or the other,” David McGowan, the executive director of the industry-affiliated N.C. Petroleum Council, said about the presence of shale in commercial amounts. “There just hasn’t been a lot of on-the-ground work to know for sure. That’s part of the process the state is going through.”
Critics call the quest a fool’s errand. The available evidence so far suggests that too little shale is down there to be worthwhile, they say.
“My gut instinct about what’s going on is that the industry is not interested in North Carolina,” said Glenn Bozorth, the chairman of the anti-fracking group Good Stewards of Rockingham County.
“So the big question now is, why are they spending all this money on something that’s not practical?”
Economic boon or environmental bane?
Residents of the small, predominantly African American neighborhood of Walnut Tree near the drill site want the state to look for its subterranean answers elsewhere. Some worry drilling could harm their drinking water.
“The water is bad enough without them drilling,” Crestview Drive resident Meoshi Manns said Thursday morning. “It smells like sulfur.”
The regional debate comes at an important juncture for North Carolina and fracking, a technology that involves injecting fluids into shale formations to free oil and gases trapped inside for millions of years.
Proponents see its potential as a welcome shot in the arm for a torpid economy still in recovery from losing textiles, tobacco and furniture manufacturing.
Foes claim fracking will bring the same types of environmental stress on groundwater and other resources that the industry inflicted on states ranging from West Virginia and Pennsylvania to North Dakota, all of which have much larger reserves than even the most optimistic Tar Heel booster envisions.
But the General Assembly enacted a law several years ago to permit hydraulic fracturing under the supervision of state environmental regulators and the new N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, which approved rules to allow fracking last year. But several lawsuits have blocked that approval from taking effect, at least temporarily.
The state’s most abundant shale formation rests southeast of the Triad in Lee and Chatham counties along the Deep River Basin, where the industry has expressed more interest and where more research has been done.
In the Dan River Basin, by contrast, the best insight stems from three exploratory holes drilled in 1981 at a relatively shallow depth of about 400 feet. Those holes produced cylinders several inches in diameter that indicated shale in some amount. But the holes were so shallow the U.S. Geological Survey would only give the state credit for a fraction of what really might lie there.
“We do have evidence of oil and natural gas in the Dan River Basin but just do not know the extent of those resources,” said Jamie Kritzer of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
State officials want to recover cylinders of about 2 inches in diameter from the Walnut Cove hole, but drilled more than four times deeper than the 1981 samples to about 1,750 feet, state geologist Ken Taylor said last week.
“A lot of times companies will know this stuff and not tell anybody,” Taylor said. “But our company is the state of North Carolina, and our people have a right to know these things.”
State officials say the drilling will not harm the environment. The hole would not be used for fracking, and no natural gas would be extracted.
Then, they promised town leaders last month, the hole “will be grouted, sealed and properly abandoned in accordance with state law.”
Walnut Tree residents plan to speak to council
The five-member Walnut Cove Town Council unanimously approved the drilling last month.
However, at its next meeting Tuesday, the council probably will hear from angry Walnut Tree residents, who feel blindsided by its decision.
“I’m going to go and speak my opinion,” said Nancy Fulp, who has lived in the quiet suburban community for 40 years. “I’m not a gas customer, so why would I want to bring in natural gas? It’s harmful to the body.”
The topic is not on the council’s formal agenda, but at least one area resident has requested time to speak, and the board always has the option of revisiting its earlier vote, Town Manager Monty Stevens said last week.
“I’ll just put it this way: Never say never,” Stevens said of the chances the council might take up the issue anew.
The state wants to drill on the town’s property “because it is public land and easier to access than private land,” the DENR’s Kritzer said.
“And it is close to land where rock with total organic carbon, a key ingredient for the presence of oil and natural gas, was discovered last time core holes were drilled,” Kritzer said of the 1981 samples.
The General Assembly set aside $250,000 for Taylor and the N.C. Geological Survey to do such exploratory work. The survey office plans to use about $200,000 for drilling at Walnut Cove and to sink several, shallower holes in another possible shale formation — the Cumberland-Marlboro Basin that extends through Scotland, Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland and Sampson counties.
Taylor said that when his office receives the Walnut Cove cylinders, experts will analyze them both in hands-on testing and with such scientific equipment as electron microscopes.
They will smell them for the scent of oil, check them for a “fizz” that could indicate escaping gas and examine them microscopically to discover how porous they are — an indicator of how easy it would be to extract oil and gas, Taylor said.
But getting positive results from the Walnut Cove cylinders wouldn’t be the final verdict on the Dan River Basin’s true potential, the petroleum council’s McGowan said.
That would only provide “baseline information” to point oil-industry drilling contractors in the right directions, he said.
Proponents should not be discouraged by previous indicators that the Dan River Basin’s reserve is too small for serious development, McGowan said.
He pointed out that geologists typically err on the side of caution: “In almost all situations, the early estimates come in on the low end of what is really there.”
Talk like that unsettles Mary Kerley, a leader of the No Fracking in Stokes protest group, and others who believe the oil industry would leave behind more damage than the economic good it might sow temporarily.
Among other fears, Kerley worries that fracking operations, which can take place at extremely high pressure, could trigger earthquakes that would threaten Duke Energy’s massive coal ash pond and the dam at Belews Creek Steam Station near town.
“If the dam could be breached, it would be the end of Stokes County as we know it,” Kerley said.
Fracking’s effect on an area’s quality of life
Officials in Stokes and Rockingham counties express doubts about fracking, particularly since state government has taken most decision-making out of their hands by vesting so much authority in Raleigh and the mining commission.
The Stokes County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution three years ago urging legislators to “take no action and pass no legislation authorizing hydraulic fracturing” before it was proven safe.
That sentiment remains strong on the Stokes board, led by a Republican majority inclined to look favorably on business, said Ronda Jones, the chairwoman of the Board of Commissioners.
“We already have Duke Power in that general area with the ash pond. I feel like our area has done its part,” Jones said.
A lucrative new industry promises much needed jobs, but the trade-off would not be worth it if the area’s river systems were damaged, said Craig Travis, the vice chairman of the Rockingham County Board of Commissioners.
“The state, they’re not allowing us to do anything” to set local rules or fees for the industry, Travis said. Counties can’t even charge the industry a surcharge to offset, for example, damage to local roads by trucks and other heavy oil-company equipment, he said.
“My goal, if they are going to come, is to allow the county at least to charge an impact fee,” Travis said.
Knowing the industry might loom large in the region’s future, Rockingham County Manager Lance Metzler said he has consulted in recent years with government officials and others in states where fracking predominates.
They have told him to watch out for road damage, environmental impact and increased demands on law enforcement to settle disputes involving sometimes rowdy workers, he said.
Metzler figures that based on conservative estimates, the Dan River Basin holds a little less than $150 million in natural gas reserves at current prices.
With that as a baseline, he doesn’t need a 2-inch hole in Walnut Cove to envision the future.
“When people say nobody will ever come, I would second-guess that in a heartbeat,” Metzler said. “It’s not, could they come. It’s just a matter of time, I’m sure.”
This article was written by Taft Wireback from News & Record, Greensboro, N.C. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.