The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced earlier this month that it would begin evaluating sites to gauge the potential for hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” — which opponents say might endanger the health of those in its backyard.
Although widespread tests will not begin until the department receives funding or a mandate from the N.C. General Assembly, it will begin testing in the Dan River, Deep River and Cumberland-Marlboro basins, said Jamie Kritzer, department spokesman.
“Everything we do is called for by law,” he said.
The agency must wait for permission before evaluating other sites.
“We do not have an appropriation from the General Assembly to do searches in other locations in North Carolina. We are prepared to do some testing in the … Cumberland-Marlboro basin,” Kritzer said.
But Kritzer said geologists have already determined that the Deep River and Dan River basins meet one of the necessary criteria for fracking, which involves drilling and injecting a mix of water, sand and chemicals into shale rock formations to release trapped natural gas.
“DENR has already taken rock samples from existing cores and cuttings in the Deep River and Dan River basins … and determined that those samples have total organic carbon, one of the key requirements for the existence of oil and gas resources,” he said in an email.
Kritzer said fracking in the Cumberland-Marlboro basin would affect Robeson, Scotland, Hoke, Cumberland and Wayne counties.
Ken Taylor, North Carolina’s state geologist, said the three sites were selected through research from the U.S. Geological Survey.
Based on the Geological Survey’s findings, the N.C. General Assembly has set aside $350,000 this year for tests in the three approved research areas, and an additional $250,000 for next year, which could be used to evaluate areas in western North Carolina.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Deep River basin — which includes portions of Anson, Lee and Wake counties — contains about 1.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Taylor said the actual amount of natural gas — which is a cleaner source of energy than coal, because there is no ash residue after burning it — could dwarf the Geological Survey’s estimate.
“It’s a lot more beneficial to the environment,” he said.
But opponents say fracking could hurt the health of residents.
Sammy Slade, outreach coordinator for N.C. WARN, an environmental activist organization, said toxins from fracking could seep into the ground and drinking water.
State resources will be wasted on the testing as the negative effects of fracking are already clear, he said.
He said fracking is most often pursued by low-income counties in an effort to bring revenue in.
But Slade said safer alternatives exist, such as solar power and wind power.
“There are a lot better ways to get resources,” he said.
Anti-fracking organizations are focusing on monitoring the rule-making process during the state’s discussions on fracking, he said.
Larry Band, a UNC geography professor and the director of the UNC Institute for the Environment, said it’s important to take caution while pursuing fracking research and implementation.
“(Fracking) needs to be done very carefully, if it’s going to be done at all,” he said.
He said if the proper precautions are taken, the damage can be minimized.
He said the institute, which does not have an official stance on the issue, raises community awareness about the benefits and consequences of fracking.
“We’ve hosted several large seminars on campus to discuss the pros and cons of fracking,” he said.
He said that UNC might not be specifically affected, although UNC operates a coal-burning power plant that fracking might replace with a system that uses natural gas.
“(It will affect UNC students) just as it will apply to all North Carolina citizens,” he said.
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