Raleigh, N.C. — Environmental regulators this week issued the state's first contracts to test sites in North Carolina for oil and gas resources ahead of any potential drilling.
The two contracts with Sanford-based Patterson Exploration Services will cost the state $236,500 for core sampling in several locations in Stokes, Scotland, Hoke and Cumberland counties.
Although drilling won't take place until late May and early June, the contracts came days after a Superior Court judge temporarily halted the state's permitting process for hydraulic fracturing drilling, or "fracking," amid a constitutional challenge over appointees to the state Mining and Energy Commission.
The testing, which does not extract oil or gas, will not be affected by the court order.
The exploration contracts target two geological formations – the Dan River and the Cumberland-Marlboro basins – in an attempt to estimate how much oil and natural gas might be trapped in the ground below. By drilling straight down more than 1,000 feet, crews will extract cores of rock several inches in diameter. A lab will then analyze the samples for organic carbon, an indicator of oil reserves.
It's unclear how long that will take.
State Department of Environment and Natural Resources spokesman Jamie Kritzer said all of the sampling will take place on public land in Walnut Cove, Raeford, Fayetteville and Laurinburg.
State lawmakers allocated the funding for test drilling several years ago in an attempt to jumpstart fracking in the state – an industry that has been slow to materialize.
Fracking extracts natural gas through horizontal drilling and then breaking apart shale deposits with a high-powered injection of water laced with grit and chemicals to release gas trapped in the rock.
Debate over the practice in North Carolina has raged for five years, with environmental groups arguing for better drinking water regulations to protect residents from chemical contamination by the fracking slurry.
In 2014, state lawmakers fast-tracked permitting for potential natural gas drillers, allowing companies to start the process in 2015.
But despite predictions there would be holes in the ground as soon as this year, there has been little movement by private industry.
After requiring enough mineral rights for an area – typically between 400 and 600 acres – a company would need approval from the Mining and Energy Commission for that drilling "unit." That process must begin 60 days before a commission meeting, and Kritzer said the commission has received no drilling unit applications so far.
Without drilling unit approval, companies can't even start the fracking permitting process, which requires review by both DENR regulators and the commission and could take as long as six months.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the test drilling contracts were issued before a Wake County judge's order temporarily halting the application process for fracking. Although the order was first reported Wednesday, the judged signed it May 6, before the contracts were complete.