WRAL Investigates

Fracking brings risk, reward to Pennsylvania; could NC be next?

Posted November 10, 2011

WRAL Investigates

— North Carolina is sitting on top of large natural gas reserves, which could be retrieved using a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. However, even the mention of fracking can unearth a heated debate over protecting the environment versus lowering the state’s dependence on foreign oil.

North Carolina currently has no natural gas production, but that could change in the near future. The Deep River Basin runs through several counties. Lee County is considered the hot spot, but the line of shale also hits parts of Chatham, Durham, Granville, Moore and Wake counties.

To see the impact of fracking, a WRAL Investigates reporter and photographer traveled to the rolling hills of rural northeast Pennsylvania, the birthplace of fracking in the U.S. There, they found an economic boon for some and a fiery bust for others.

All along the Susquehanna River Basin, natural gas drilling has transformed tiny communities like Wysox.

“What they've brought to this area has been absolutely phenomenal. It has brought jobs. It has brought business like we've never seen before,” said business owner Gregg Murrelle. “It's boom town right now, right here in this small area.”

Fracking has allowed Murrelle to add 40 new rooms to the Riverstone Inn this year. Local hotels, restaurants and other businesses say they’re thriving, but the progress comes at a price for some.

Like many landowners in Wysox, Sherry Vargson leased the mineral rights under a portion of her farm to Chesapeake Energy. A gas pad and 100-foot derrick stand in her backyard. She describes the experience as annoying and frustrating.

“I definitely feel the gas company deceives people,” she said.

Vargson says tests done on her well water showed that the methane gas levels jumped from a negligible reading to higher levels. She showed WRAL News how holding a lit match to her running tap water turns the water into a ball of flames.

“We said, ‘Eeeh, this isn't normal,’” she said.

fracking Fracking brings risk, reward to rural Pennsylvania

When Vargson pours a glass of water, a gray cloud bubbles to the top. Experts say ingesting limited amounts of methane isn't harmful, but Vargson says she won't drink it.

Researchers agree that methane exists naturally in Pennsylvania groundwater, but there's dispute over who or what is responsible for dramatic, rare instances like Vargson’s. Some scientists believe that well bore casings that leak can lead to methane seeping into water wells.

“In some very rare instances, poor casing or just natural movements of gas below the ground can cause changes. And when that happens, we need to fix it,” said Chesapeake Energy spokesman Brian Grove.

Chesapeake tests Vargson's well water and delivers 25 five-gallon jugs of fresh water to her home each month.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are success stories. One gas well in Susquehanna County provided more than $1 million in royalties over the past year for the Elk Lake School District. Even critics like Vargson cautiously see promise in responsible drilling.

“I believe there is a way,” she said.

While in Pennsylvania, WRAL traveled to a Chief Oil & Gas site, where drilling was underway, to get a lesson in shale gas extraction.

Using a large bit, crews drilled through the water table to about 5,000 or 6,000 feet down to the shale. Then, the drilling turned horizontal for another 5,000 feet or more. Horizontal drilling limits the number of gas pads, so they can be tucked away in the rural landscape.

Next, a hydraulic fracturing team sent long tubing into the shale. Charges were then set off to fracture the rock and release the natural gas. Then, a high pressure water mixture was forced down, further opening the cracks. Tons of sand followed to keep the cracks open.

“I would say that natural gas drilling is one of the safest industrial activities that exist,” said Grove, with Chesapeake Energy.

The one thing residents can’t miss, though, is the traffic. Thousands of trucks, tanks and machinery are used in the fracking process. Trucks pack the two-lane roads hauling water, sand and equipment. It takes approximately 2,000 to 3,000 truck trips per well.

“The traffic is one of the negatives,” said Murrelle, at the Riverstone Inn.

Duke University Professor Rob Jackson and his team are on the front lines of the fracking debate. Protecting groundwater is just part of the issue. For each well, 5 million gallons of water goes in and wastewater comes out. Many companies now recycle for the next operation.

“We need to think about not only where the water will come from, but where the wastewater will go, who will pay for it and how we'll keep track of it,” Jackson said.

There are more layers to consider in the fracking debate. They range from fracking fluids to scientific disputes over whether fracking can lead to earthquakes.

"If it's is done, we think it ought to be done as safely as possible. North Carolina ought not rush into it, but be thoughtful about what we do," Jackson said.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • HeadPro Nov 11, 2011

    Just like nuclear. If there is an accident the taxpayers pay not the operators. If we didn't socialize the losses they would not be in business. Parhaps this is a worthy trade off, but I'm pretty sure we will all disagree AFTER the accident. godnessgracious2

    Not true... We disagree NOW! No FRACKING!!!!!

  • solorider Nov 11, 2011

    I'm convinced that there is nothing that we, the people, can say or do will make any difference in regards to legislation regarding fracking. When the representative from Charlotte was interviewed on tonight's broadcast, you could SEE the dollar-signs reflected in his eyes. It is painfully obvious that the gas companies have waved obscene amounts of $$ in politicians faces, so they have already decided. No matter what the facts are, good or bad, in the end we will have no say, as usual.

  • irishlass Nov 11, 2011

    Having been born and raised in Bradford County, PA, I have witnessed the change in my small town... the good and bad... It all depends if you are a owner of a specific business in the area... Hotels, restaurants,building owners, Trucking companies, and owners of Large acerages of lands... these are the ones that are profiting.. the everyday, small town worker just trying to make ends meet are the ones sitting in traffic jams for up to a 45-50 minute strech to go 5 miles as all the back roads are destroyed (literally de-stroyed) from the gas well traffic..can not find affordable housing as landlords have jacked rent up 300% ...so before you choose take the time to visit Towanda, Wysox or any of Bradford County PA and see for your self... Ask you self do you want this for your town? Thanks for listening.... CRM, Towanda, PA

  • wattsun Nov 11, 2011

    lets be careful here!
    Don't believe the lies propagated by the gas industry.
    Don't think the EPA has the man power to regulate these sites thoroughly and efficiently as has been proven in PA.
    This is just another shining example of corporate greed.
    One other thing that no one is mentioning is the 100's of new tanker trucks that will be introduced to our areas hauling the toxic brew that is pumped into the ground to assist in fracking.
    On more than one occasion trucks have crashed and caused an environmental nightmare for the surrounding area poisoning the water supply.
    Fracking also releases cancer causing Radon 225 in the surrounding ground water. Is it a done deal once the water table is poisoned in your area no cleaning that up for decades only the ignorant will say fracking does not harm the water table go visit any area where it goes on and get the truth from the public. Some wells are so contaminated people have been advised not to even shower in their only supply of wate

  • fayncmike Nov 11, 2011

    "Brilliant idea NOT!! Drinking water is a small portion of the water used by the average family. Are you willing to buy all the water you use for bathing, laundry, etc.?

    Absolutely right! Why should people buy bottled water? Why should people have to buy bottled water? What makes anyone think bottled water is any safer? Are we to use bottled water to bathe, wash, cook with? Shall we buy bottled water for all the animals we raise for food? Are we to fill our rivers, streams and seas with bottled water for the fish and wildlife? Lastly, what about the tens of millions of empty plastic water bottles. Where do most of them end up? They end up in landfills where they will remain for hundreds of years, slowly releasing toxins. None of the above. The single most important factor is the environment. Everything else pales by comparison. As the environment is destroyed so will we be destroyed. Who cares how much oil and gas we have if there is no one living to use it?

  • discowhale Nov 11, 2011

    I've got a question about her water, having lived with wells in the past.

    Why is her water 'spurting' out of the faucet like they show in the commercial? If your well is set up correctly, the pump is below the normal low water level of the well. And when you run your water, it should NEVER surge or spit like that.

    And no haggis basher, it's not being done so someone can get a new truck and a CEO can get a bonus. It's being done so people can run there home furnaces and stoves. Not to mention how much electricity is generated from natural gas.

    If we don't frack for gas or oil, and we don't dig coal, what is it we're supposed to use for fuels? Or is it just the NIMBY thing for you? Or are you already off the grid, riding a horse to your strictly organic job, working by hand made candle light?

  • nomorethanthat Nov 11, 2011

    One can easily buy good water to drink, but the chemical contamination from fracking can make well water not safe to wash yourself, clothes and dishes in and you can't get that water at the local market.

  • tsmith1133 Nov 11, 2011

    Just say no to frack

  • haggis basher Nov 11, 2011

    ""People all over the US are buying drinking water even if they have wells or city water. So a contaminated well is easy to avoid. Just buy your water.""

    So if my well that has provided good clean water for generations goes bad I have to buy water just so my neighbor can buy a new truck and an oil company CEO can get a bonus?

    There is zero hurry. Lets drill a few holes in a few places and let them work for say ten years and see what if any effect they have. The gas is going nowhere.

  • haggis basher Nov 11, 2011

    "I'd be content to have fracking not just ten miles from my house, but to have the extraction point (derrick) in my back yard. Actually, I'd prefer it. I hear the royalty payments are quite nice."

    Only if you own the mineral rights............granpappy may have sold those decades ago for a new mule. You could end up with a rig on your land, spoiled water and very little to show for it.