Chatham County

Chatham’s 2-year fracking ban ending soon; what’s next?

In this March 29, 2013 photo, workers tend to a well head during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. gas well outside Rifle, in western Colorado. The first experimental hydraulic fracturing occurred in 1947. More than 1 million U.S. oil and gas wells have been fracked since, according to the American Petroleum Institute.
In this March 29, 2013 photo, workers tend to a well head during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. gas well outside Rifle, in western Colorado. The first experimental hydraulic fracturing occurred in 1947. More than 1 million U.S. oil and gas wells have been fracked since, according to the American Petroleum Institute. AP

If fracking comes to the Piedmont’s Deep River Basin, it will likely land in Lee County, but Chatham County should still guard against any harm that might arise from natural gas development in the region.

That’s according to Charles Yuill, an environmental consultant hired by Chatham to explore how, and where, hydraulic fracturing might affect the county.

Yuill told the county commissioners that local roads won’t stand up to the hundreds of heavy tanker trucks carrying water and chemicals needed for fracking.

“Roads are a loser,” he said. “Counties, as a rule, are not making money on fracking within their boundaries.”

Water supply is also a big concern, he said, as each frack requires between 1 million and 4 million gallons of water, drawn from local sources.

That water is mixed with a complex array of chemicals, many of which are closely guarded trade secrets the natural gas industry does not have to disclose to the public. The contaminated water poses significant disposal challenges, as both storage and transport can result in spills or leakage. Yuill cited a township in Washington County, Pennsylvania, that has been without public drinking water wells since 2015 as a result of contamination.

In his study of fracking in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Michigan, and other states, Yuill observed communities suffered other less obvious impacts, noting that clearing land for well pads, pipelines and road access often results in a fragmented landscape and a loss of forest quality.

Further, he said fracking tends to change the public perception of a community’s health and environmental quality, and can drive down property values.

Natural gas pockets

Yuill estimated there are less than 1,000 acres on the south and southeastern edges of Chatham County that would be suitable for fracking.

Chatham, Lee and Moore counties straddle the Triassic Basin, a geological formation which contains layers of shale rock that could potentially be drilled using horizontal or vertical wells, then pumped with water, chemicals, and sand at high pressure to blast loose pockets of natural gas trapped in the rock.

North Carolina rescinded its ban on oil and gas exploration in 2014, prompting Chatham to enact its own two-year moratorium the following year. State law prevents local governments from banning drilling, or imposing other fees and regulations, but county officials maintained the moratorium was not an outright ban, rather a pause to allow time to complete the county’s comprehensive land use planning process.

That two-year pause ends this August.

Limited frackable land

Board Chair James Crawford noted that natural gas prices are currently low, and market supply is steady, making it unlikely Chatham’s limited frackable land will draw much immediate attention from the natural gas industry.

Still, Crawford and other board members said they want the county to be ready to address any potential impacts that might come from drilling, whether it happens in Chatham or in neighboring counties.

It’s possible, said Yuill, that once the complex infrastructure needed to support fracking is put in place in Lee County, it could open the door to exploring Chatham’s slice of the shale bed using shallow fracking, which drills down less than 3,000 feet deep.

He said shallow wells tend to be closer to underground aquifers and typically have a higher percentage of aquifer leakage than other forms of fracking.

Commissioners, along with Chatham County residents and advisory board members, questioned Yuill about the report, with most focused on issues of water quality, the chemical compounds used in fracking, and the potential for spills, leaks or other environmental contamination from leftover waste water.

Yuill’s report recommends the board draft a conditional use permitting process that targets retention of water quality, though he noted any regulation would have to be widely applicable and not just aimed at the natural gas industry.

He also suggested forming a multi-county working group to address fracking issues from a regional perspective, a move Board Chair Crawford supported.

“Lee County is going to be where this battle is going to take shape, but our hand will be strengthened if we work together,” said Crawford.

The board of commissioners will discuss the county’s next steps at a meeting next month. The process to draft a conditional use ordinance is likely to take one year.

Elizabeth Friend: efriend.email@gmail.com

 

What’s next

The Chatham County Board of Commissioners will take action on Monday to schedule a public hearing on extending the fracking moratorium on July 17.

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