The Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC) at UNC Charlotte hosted a Forum on Fracking Friday, March 8. The event brought legislators, scientists, environmental advocates, industry representatives, consultants, public health specialists together, and was headlined by a Pennsylvania landowner. Three different summaries of the event are provided by WFAE, Charlotte Observer, and WSOC-9. I think the reports from these outlets reflect range of the thoughts and challenges surrounding fracking, especially considering WSOC-9 seemed to report on the topic as if most of their audience has never heard of it. The timing of this forum was a little unfortunate since it occurred the same day as the Mining and Energy Commission’s meeting in Raleigh (and I’m trying to catch up on the audio of that meeting and the associated committee meetings).
Representative Mike Hager began the day with his critique of SB 76, and it is encouraging to hear the same apprehensiveness about the bill that has been expressed here. Later in the day, Mitch Gillespie, now Assistant Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, echoed similar concerns about SB 76, though he said without much elaboration “there are several good things in SB 76.” So let me say outright: Gillespie was still playing the role of legislator despite his best effort to wear the regulator hat. Too often in his presentation, he was unfamiliar of the science of the Triassic Basins, and when describing where other sources of shale gas may be, offered statements like “North Carolina needs to be a player in the energy industry.” He also quoted the DENR Shale Gas Study wrong in that the NC Department of Commerce estimates to a 7 year period to extract the gas, not that it’s a 5-year supply, adding that “the state geologist thinks there’s a 40 year supply of gas there.”
Dr. Larry Murdoch of Clemson presented some calculations earlier in the morning on the amount of gas, providing a range of gas from half a trillion cubic feet to 2 trillion cubic feet, though the realistic estimate is about 1 trillion cubic feet. These calculations were revised from a similar talk he gave at UNC-Chapel Hill in January 2012. The calculation of the volume of gas is based on the dimensions of the Cumnock Formation within the Sanford sub basin of the Deep River Basin. Based on a slightly higher value of gas than its current price in the market, that 1 trillion cubic feet is worth approximately $5 billion. But note, the low end of the range could leave that gas worth $500 million. Murdoch outlined several risks, acknowledging the rewards could be high, but ended with a simple list of action items:
- develop regulations (in process),
- establish fees to be collected (set for bonding, drilling; needs fleshing out for oversight, water treatment and disposal),
- outreach (which is underway, and I, for one, am satisfied with the quickness with which DENR has posted material to the MEC portal, and the opportunities for public comment/questions at the MEC meetings, and at least the study group meetings)
- monitoring (which is underway with the water quality sampling being done by Duke and USGS in Lee and Chatham Counties, and also with the seismic monitoring being done by UNC-Chapel Hill)
Then Seamus McGraw stepped forward to provide the keynote address, and how refreshing it is to be in an academic setting and a speaker comes to simply speak: no powerpoint presentation, no photos or charts, but just a bag of coal and a copy of his book. Yes, a bag of coal. He began his talk by explaining he has a couple of fracking wells on his land in Pennsylvania, but he is ambivalent about it. He said outright that if someone comes in and says there are no risks to fracking, they are lying, but if someone else comes in to say there are no rewards, they are lying as well. So he won’t throw the first stone, but he did throw a bag of coal into the middle of the center walkway:
That right there is 18 pounds of coal, which is how much each American is responsible for burning each day.
He expounded upon our hunger for energy and how it relied on such resources being pulled from the earth to power our economy and lifestyles, and this 18 pounds of coal is better than what it used to be with the shift to natural gas. But despite natural gas burning cleaner, and at least leaving some mountain tops in tact, it is still a fossil fuel. And as opponents to fracking have lined up to protest the practice, property owners, farmers, families have made the tough choice to sign mineral leases as a means to pay the bills for at least another year, and no one can fault them for that. Interestingly, here is the perspective of a landowner with fracking wells on his property, and he said quite plainly:
Fracking isn’t the problem I’m concerned about… it’s all the associated activity around fracking.
Generators run on diesel fuel. Trucks transporting material in and out run on diesel. The exhaust and the spills from these machines are astoundingly messy. He described a time when he was meeting with a representative of a gas developer, and drove away from a fracking well but was weary he may run out of gas before getting back to the office. Yet, they had been 100 feet from this energy source coming out of the ground: how come we are not using the very energy we are obtaining to run the equipment? All across Pennsylvania, he cited this kind of ad hoc development of wells, compressors, transportation networks, with little to no coordination of the resources.
After Seamus’ presentation, representatives from Piedmont Natural Gas, Clear Air Carolina, and from the consulting firm of Haley and Aldrich each frequently referred back to points Seamus had made. Piedmont Natural Gas was talking about the lowered carbon emissions due to the shift to natural gas from coal, but was also highlighting the effort to coordinate infrastructure and support systems: he had charts displaying the very real cost savings natural gas represents to North Carolinians (note: that’s the usage of natural gas, not the extraction of). The presentation from Piedmont Natural Gas mentioned the redirecting of the east coast pipeline that will transport gas from Pennsylvania to the gulf, actually making access in North Carolina more cost effective.
There was a second panel discussion in the afternoon focusing the job potential that natural gas development may bring, and the panel included a trade specialist (pipelines and associated infrastructure), a public health and environmental remediation specialist, and a representative from Hess Corporation. The best comment from this panel was the advice to “ride the boom,” meaning to take advantage of the financial rewards from extraction to make sound forward-thinking investments and plan carefully to avoid the bust cycle. Jobs won’t come from fracking directly, and definitely won’t last, so make investments in civic and physical infrastructure to facilitate sustained job growth in the region. Several panelists in the afternoon hinted that with industry not being present in the state, the lack of technically trained worforce, the relative small area of gas-rich shale, and the current low price for gas, North Carolina’s resources may best be set aside as a sort of “rainy day fund.”
The consultants provided some great perspective, as they have experience in planning for the development of gas extraction as well as experience in cleaning up their mishaps. One consultant accurately stated that despite the great effort to reuse fracking water, which the MEC is hoping to incentivize in its rules, the treatment and disposal is merely delayed: eventually that water will run out of wells to be reused in. The other consultant, who sat on the panel with the Clean Air Carolina representative and a researcher from UNC-Charlotte, quite astutely described that for fracking to be executed safely, there needs to be the right balance of technical, political, and societal will. The technical piece is there, though still refining its capabilities. The political will seems to be there, he said, given the state’s legislation and effort to develop a regulatory framework. The societal will is still a work in progress.
To me, that last point about the technical, political, and societal pieces aligning may be the most important part of the forum. It was echoed by the advice from the public health/environmental remediation expert, that a well planned industry will benefit the state in the long run. I was able to intercept Seamus McGraw during the lunch break and asked, based on his firsthand observation of fracking, how we can stretch out the boom portion of the cycle so that we can avoid the bust: he said it all comes down to planning for it – to have the vision for what it’s going to be, what it is going to cost, what we need to get out of it (note: this need for planning is exactly why I shared the announcement about the economic development forum in Lee County a couple weeks ago, as well as noting the need for volunteers on boards in Lee and Chatham Counties). His interview on WSOC-9 really captures the sentiment well:
I have not seen the kind of long-term planning that says where are we going to be in 30 years