Sanford, N.C. — Although offshore drilling often dominates the campaign dialogue about energy, geologists say oil and gas lie under central North Carolina.
Politicians seizing on drivers' frustrations over high gas prices and U.S. dependence on foreign oil focus on the uncertain prospect of finding great energy reserves under the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. Inland resources are better documented, scientists say, even if they are not immense.
"All we have are estimates now as to what exists out there," said Lincoln Pratson, associate professor of sedimentary geology at Duke University.
Experts generally know what kind of rock and sediment lie under the ocean, and most scientists predict natural gas deposits are more likely off the North Carolina coast than massive oil reserves, Pratson said. Aside from decades-old drill tests, however, no one knows what resources might be found there or whether it would be economically feasible to bring them to the surface.
"At a minimum, it's worthwhile at least doing the exploration," he said, and the U.S. House voted this week to lift a moratorium on new offshore drilling.
There are no regulations stopping anyone from trying to bring in a gusher near Sanford, however.
Tucked in the woods of Lee County, some old gas wells give scientists a clearer picture of what energy reserves lie under mainland North Carolina than under its coast.
"We do have rocks and materials that produce, under the right conditions, hydrocarbons," state geologist Jeffrey Reid said. "How much is unknown."
Reid has compiled about 60 years worth of geological, seismic and drill data for an area known as the Triassic Basin, which includes Lee County. He plans to present the information to petroleum company scientists next month.
"This is what the bosses want to see – (something to) direct prospects to say, 'Drill here,'" said Kenneth Taylor, assistant state geologist.
Russ Patterson of Patterson Exploration in Sanford, has photos of a 1974 Lee County drilling site hanging on his office wall. Tests confirm methane gas deposits and even oil are located thousands of feet below in rock formations.
"We have coal bed methane right here," Patterson said. "I think you should drill everywhere you can drill to get what you can get."
Private companies haven't yet been willing to take a chance on expensive piping and processing needed to make the methane usable, but high gas prices often raise the sense of urgency. Some suggest the energy could be used locally, such as fueling power-intensive brick plants.
Geologists said they doubt there's enough oil under Lee County to come close to meeting state energy needs, but they said it could be a start.
"I think that is part of trying to solve our energy crisis or energy problems from home – at home – with home solutions," Taylor said.