This week community members will get their first opportunity to publicly comment on the state’s draft study of natural gas removal — or the controversial process known as fracking.
This study was designed to help determine the future of hydraulic fracturing, also know as fracking, which is currently illegal in North Carolina. But some experts question if the state can really deliver reliable information on the issue for the $100,000 budgeted for the study.
Fracking is the process of drilling into shale deposits and using water and chemicals to break up the rock and extract natural gas. Fracking is controversial because it has been blamed for polluting ground water in other states where it has become common practice.
The recently released study is a preliminary draft and the final version will go to the legislature May 1, after public comment is incorporated.
When it comes to these types of studies, $100,000 doesn’t usually go far.
Gary Blank, an associate professor of Forestry and Environmental Resources at NC State who specializes in environmental impact planning, voiced such concerns.
"If that's all they're going to pay for, they're not going to get much," he said. "You can't even do a good highway impact assessment for under several hundred thousand dollars."
Del Boehnenstiehl, an associate professor in Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at NC State, knows just how expensive such projects can be. A few years back he participated in a shallow geophysical study in Washington State that cost almost $80,000 — and that was only for a couple of weeks of work with four or five people in the field collecting new data.
He said for the amount spent on this particular study all that can really be expected is for participants to be looking through whatever data is already available to them and crunching numbers.
Those who have seen even the study’s initial outline know exactly how extensive such a study can be.
The outline itself is six pages and 10 sections long, encompassing a variety of topics that range from an examination of the potential oil and gas resources, to methods of extracting these, to evaluating environmental, economic, social and health impacts, to establishing the framework for regulation and protection.
"That's a long list for $100,000,” Boehnenstiehl said.
But $100,000 was the amount decided on and allocated by the General Assembly when they directed the state Department of Natural Resources to do the study last year.
Diana Kees, communications director for DENR, said the study included both newly-gathered data on North Carolina, as well as data collected from research done in other states.
Not all of the money has been spent yet. Kees said the funds spent so far have paid for a variety of things, including staff travel to Pennsylvania for research purposes, external lab work on soil samples, public meeting site rental, live streaming of public meetings, software to help make estimates regarding shale gas reserves, and funding to match federal money to assist the USGS in groundwater testing.
Blank said it’s a matter of covering the topic properly, and $100,000 just might not cut it. He said what many people don't understand about environmental impact assessments is that they don't just evaluate the effect a project will have on the environment itself, but also includes social, economic, health and welfare issues.
"It's not just the bugs and bunnies, the birds and bees, the water and the trees," he said. "It's the total package."
Given the scope of the project being considered, Blank said it really comes down to how each of the subtopics is treated.
"They could spend a $100,000 to get the whole thing done, but it would be so superficial as to be worthless," he said.
According to Blank, all the information needed would have to be readily available from public records and past studies for a study of this size to be accurate for that price. But this is problematic, because as Blank put it, there are important portions of the outline that we do not have accurate records on, such as underground water supplies, or aquifers.
"We don’t have good information on how much ground water is down there, which way it's flowing; we don't even know how many people are using any given aquifer," Blank said. "Generating that amount of detail, that amount of information, would eat up the $100,000 right there."
This issue of proper research and preparation came up repeatedly at the February meeting for the General Assembly's Energy Policy Issues Committee — the group charged with evaluating energy production and efficiency within North Carolina.
William Morgan, director of Government Relations for the NC Chapter of the Sierra Club, pointed out that financial and regulatory resources are something to be seriously considered. He said it’s especially important when considering the budget cuts North Carolina's government has seen in recent years — DENR being one of the groups affected.
Given the number of federal regulations that the natural gas industry is specifically exempt from, and North Carolina's lack of experience dealing with these issues in the past, Morgan recommended waiting until extensive and thorough information had been gathered to make any decisions.
"At this time DENR lacks the resources as well as the technical expertise to effectively monitor this fracking," Morgan said.
Other experts at the meeting agreed that waiting is North Carolina's best bet.
Joe Rudek, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, has spent the past year and a half in Pennsylvania studying the effects of natural gas extraction on water and air quality.
He espoused similar concerns for the need for strong state regulation, inspection, and enforcement of regulations if North Carolina decides to allow hydraulic fracturing.
Additionally, the natural gas deposits in the state are only one-third as deep as they are in other places, so the vertical fissures caused by drilling may intersect with ground water, polluting that supply.
Rudek also cited wastewater treatment, the storage and transportation of this water, air pollutants, chemical disclosure of fracking fluids, well construction, land use and storage as essential issues to be considered if North Carolina officials decide to move forward.
Some wonder if studying all the factors is even possible before moving forward.
State Sen. Robert Rucho, chair of the Energy Policy Issues committee, asked, "How do you recommend we ever evaluate the effect on North Carolina's specific own geology — how do we do that without ever allowing fracking to occur?"
But Rudek maintains that allowing geologists from universities and state geological agencies to do proper research is the best way to evaluate this. It’s not as if the natural gas present in that shale bed is going anywhere, he said.