A provision in Senate Bill 76, also known as the Domestic Energy Jobs Act — which aims to fast track in-state fracking by allowing the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources to begin issuing permits in March 2015 — will lift a ban on injection wells. Lifting the ban could potentially allow fracking companies to dispose of chemical-laden wastewater by injecting it deep underground, possibly here at the coast.
Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is the process of pumping water and chemicals at high pressure into shale rock formations deep underground to create fractures that allow for the extraction of oil and natural gas.
Mike Giles, coastal advocate for the North Carolina Coastal Federation, said while evaporation pools and treatment centers are viable options for disposing of potentially toxic wastewater, disposal via injection wells is the much cheaper method preferred by the fracking industry.
But the Piedmont region grounds eyed for fracking won’t support injection wells. The porous sediment along the coast is the best place for them.
Wilmington City Council took a stand against the use of injection wells to dispose of fracking wastewater during its March 19 meeting, when Mayor Bill Saffo and councilwoman Laura Padgett added a resolution to the council’s agenda supporting the existing ban on injection wells. As Saffo introduced the resolution, he noted Sen. Thom Goolsby and Rep. Susi Hamilton, of New Hanover County, shared his support for the existing law.
North Carolina’s ban on injection wells was established in 1972 after it was discovered that industrial waste pumped into injection wells just outside of Wilmington had contaminated the Black Creek Aquifer, which provides tap water for most of the Fayetteville area. Hercules, Inc., a manufacturer of polyester, had been pumping industrial waste at depths ranging from 850-1,000 feet underground for four years.
“I’ve been in the oil business my whole life,” said Paul Thayer, professor emeritus of geology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “Accidents happen. To hear politicians in Raleigh talk, you’d think there won’t be any problems. That’s a stupid way to think.”
Thayer, who owns oil wells in Texas, said that other states have fairly stringent regulations regarding oil and gas exploration, and he believes that’s a good thing.
“[The public] needs to have a legal recourse in case something goes wrong,” Thayer said. “I’m convinced that with the people we have in the Senate and House, [SB76] will fly through. Whether it comes to fruition, however, that’s another thing.”
Thayer said he believes the natural gas resources in North Carolina are not going to be enough to attract larger industries to the state.
Estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey indicate that the shale rock reserves in the Piedmont region only contain enough gas to meet North Carolina’s energy needs for three to five years based on the state’s current energy usage.
Grady McCallie, policy director for the North Carolina Conservation Network, said one of the main concerns of his organization is that “wildcatters” — smaller fracking companies who have found their niche in raising enough money from investors to try a questionable location in the hopes of striking it rich — will come in.
“What you get are gamblers who are able to scrape together money from investors who are excited but don’t know anything about oil or gas,” McCallie said. “They punch some wells in an area and then they don’t find anything and they walk away. The problem with that is that they aren’t accountable in the same way as publicly owned companies are.”
As of March 26, Senate Bill 76 has passed the House and currently sits in the House Commerce and Job Development Committee. If it passes, it will still need to be approved by the House Environment Committee and House Finance Committee.
Reps. Buck Newton R-Wilson and Nash counties, Bob Roucho R-Mecklenburg County, and Andrew Brock R-Davie and Rowan counties, the primary sponsors of SB76, could not be reached for comment.