It turns out that the General Assembly might not be the biggest source of natural gas in the Triangle. State geological experts say significant deposits could be trapped less than a mile deep under parts of Lee, Chatham, Durham, Wake and Orange counties. But winning support for resource exploration in such an eco-conscious region might prove almost as difficult as getting BP a new permit for offshore drilling.
Nobody knows for sure how much is down there. Some published reports say it’s enough to fill the state’s needs for the next 40 years. The reserves are in vast underground formations called shale basins. Until about a decade ago, getting gas out of them wasn’t economically feasible. But two new technologies have turned previously ignored shale basins in the U.S., Europe, Brazil and elsewhere into big producers.
Now it could be North Carolina’s turn. “We know how thin the [shale basin] layers are at some spots,” state geologist James Simons says. “We know what typically this size layer produces. And we know what other states have done with similar deposits.” Two wells drilled in the 1980s and later abandoned show the presence of natural gas. In May, Simons was planning a trip to Pittsburgh to study the effects of drilling there. “There has been a good number of these wells drilled, and there are only a few horror stories.”
Already environmental groups are raising red flags. Molly Diggins, director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club, likes natural gas because it burns cleanly and could be used to replace coal at power plants. But the new technologies involve injecting millions of gallons of water containing potentially harmful chemicals into the basins to crack them and release the gas. That creates two problems: diverting drinking water for other purposes and contaminating groundwater.
N.C. House Speaker Joe Hackney grew up in Chatham County and still operates a cattle farm there, though he now lives in Orange County. The state doesn’t allow the new technologies, and he says it needs to adopt safeguards before relaxing the prohibitions. The state should study regulations and revenue streams in other states before changing its laws, he says.
Duke University geology professor Ronald Perkins has been trying for years, on behalf of a landowner, to get companies interested in drilling in the region. A few have leased land, but he doesn’t expect much action for at least a year. “There’s no pipeline or other infrastructure, there are likely to be regulatory issues, and we still need to explore the geologic data.”
Puck of the draw
Raleigh will host its first major-league all star game — only the second ever held in North Carolina — in January. The 2011 National Hockey League All-Star Game is expected to pump between $10 million and $20 million into the local economy, largely hotels and restaurants, and boost the region’s credentials as an international player. Raleigh, home of the Carolina Hurricanes, was picked over 14 other NHL cities because of past success in hosting NHL events — including the Stanley Cup Final in 2002 and 2006 and the 2004 entry draft — the region’s growth and wealth, a renovated airport, new hotels and a new convention center. The 1991 National Basketball Association all-star game was played in Charlotte, back when the Hornets were setting attendance records.