LAURINBURG — A proposed search for natural gas in layers of rock which lie beneath Scotland and the surrounding counties could be the first step in bringing to the area a controversial operation that environmental groups say could have lasting effects on the region’s health.
According to Therese Vick, a campaign coordinator for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, if the potential for natural gas is discovered in the Cumberland-Marlboro basin, which extends from Wayne County to Dillon, S.C. and lies beneath Wayne, Sampson, Cumberland, Hoke, Scotland and Robeson counties, a sweeping hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” operation could follow.
But Martin B. Farley, chair of the geology department at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke and a former researcher for Exxon Mobil Corporation, says while the risk of environmental impact is great, it is far less than that of coal mining, and that the potential for natural gas reserves in the shallow shale rock below the county is slim.
The area has yet to be assessed by the U.S. Geological Survey, but findings of organic carbon — one of the key requirements for the existence of oil and gas resources — in North Carolina’s Deep River and Dan River basins, both of which lie far north and west of Scotland, have suggested to researchers that rock beneath Scotland and surrounding counties could harbor the same potential.
Drew Elliot, communications director for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the department is prepared to determine if the potential for natural gas could exist in the area, and Mitch Gillespie, the department’s assistant secretary for the environment, has estimated that $61,000 of the $300,000 set aside for research by the General Assembly will be put to use in the Cumberland-Marlboro Basin.
It is not clear when testing will be done.
Hydraulic fracturing, the process of releasing natural gas from shale by injecting high-powered mixtures of water, sand and chemicals into the rock which creates fissures from which the gas can escape, was made legal in North Carolina earlier this year by the General Assembly. It will take another vote to issue permits and authorize drilling.
Vick doesn’t like the idea.
The process uses millions of gallons of water, she said, and no technology exists to return the water to a drinkable state — leaving it to be stored in above-ground tanks, kept in evaporation pools until it is absorbed by the atmosphere, or in some cases, disposed of as waste.
“They really don’t have an answer for that,” she said. “… There are no monitoring well baseline tests that have been done. There are no monitoring well systems like you have around a big landfill or some other facility because it’s not required to monitor what’s happening and what might be coming through … they’re not really looking for it, and you can’t find what you’re not looking for, but I think it’s just a matter of time.”
Farley says that while the potential for water contamination is greater in regions like Scotland, where rock layers are shallow, water composition in the region’s deeper aquifers is closely related to saline — already undrinkable in its natural state.
He added that while fracking can contaminate a large water supply, a far worse culprit is current and past gasoline stations, whose underground gasoline storage often leaks; and that the extraction of and use of natural gas combined is, on a broad scale, more environmentally sound then the mining and use of coal, which North Carolina residents “seem to forget exists.”
“There’s no question in my mind that mining coal has far more environmental impacts than does fracking,” he said.
Others have touted various economic benefits. North Carolina Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker has said a tax on fracking could boost her agency’s coffers and in turn be used to offer incentives to corporations who would consider locating to the state. The American Enterprise Institute, a not-for-profit organization which studies industry policy, points to the oil and gas industry as a continuously growing source of employment, with the number of job holders in the industry in 2012 a 67-percent increase since 2009.
Vick said her group is also concerned with rights to personal property, which could be upended in a complicated legal process by those who are able to acquire a property’s “mining rights” to land. The effect on property values, air quality and the health of the surrounding population also top the group’s concerns.
Vick likened the process to “popping a soda can,” unleashing components that “are meant to stay underground.”
“So you’ve got those air contaminants, the smog from the dozens of diesel trucks that are required to service one operation and the vehicle engines that are on site and run 24-7 sometimes for months. Local air quality will be affected.”
Vick is also concerned about a chemical disclosure law, which has been in debate by the Mining and Energy Commission for some time and could stop the release to the public the chemical agents used that may have led to illness or injury to protect corporations that use them.
“It’s kind of like the industry is doing an uncontrolled public health experiment on the country,” she said.
But Farley doesn’t think that there will be any fracking in the Cumberland-Marlboro basin soon. To reach the sediment that contains the most sound evidence of natural gas, he said, would require drilling through the coastal plain — not “an expense beyond that of an oil company,” but one that would not be made without first getting results from other geological studies. One of those would be a gravity survey, because the presence of natural resources can change an area’s gravitational pull.
Even then, he said, he’s not convinced that evidence will be found — drills in Robeson County’s soil have ended in piedmont rock. But if studies turn up a positive result, he said, the area’s residents may have to compromise.
“In Robeson County right now … and going into parts of Scotland County, people are not happy about having solar farms in their neighborhood. It sometimes comes down to relative trade-offs.
“… Still, companies will likely focus on where they can get more return for dollar invested, which, at least at the moment, is not North Carolina.”