WRAL Investigates

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

Posted November 10, 2011 6:00 p.m. EST
Updated November 10, 2011 7:56 p.m. EST

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.

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.