At a recent hearing before a state legislative committee, Mitch Gillespie, assistant secretary for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the agency plans to study locations in the far western counties of North Carolina to assess their feasibility for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

However, Jamie Kritzer, public information officer for DENR, said the agency does not yet have any funding from the General Assembly to conduct this preliminary testing and this would a long-range effort.

“I am not sure if it will happen or not,” said Kritzer. “We will need an appropriation from the General Assembly.”

Kritzer said Gillespie spoke to the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Committee on Energy Policy in October about conducting tests in North Carolina related to fracking.

This is a method of extracting natural gas by pumping water and chemicals deep underground to release the gas. This is a controversial method because of opposition by environmentalists and others. They contend that this process could destroy the environment and pose a hazard for public health.

Gillespie is a former state representative from McDowell County. Last year, he was appointed to the position of assistant secretary of DENR and resigned his seat in the N.C. House. When contacted by The McDowell News, Gillespie referred questions to Kritzer.

“As part of a long-range plan, the department has determined that rock sampling and additional research are necessary in this region to determine whether the potential organic-rich formations contain oil or natural gas,” said Kritzer. “At this time, DENR does not have an appropriation from the General Assembly needed to conduct testing in western North Carolina.”

In his testimony before the Committee on Energy Policy, Gillespie presented a preliminary list of sites that could be considered for the feasibility of fracking. Most of the sites on the list are located in the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain, according to a story by Carolina Public Press.

But the list also included a mention of a site in the mountain area, identified only as a “precambrian rift basin” in “western NC.” Kritzer said this would include parts of North Carolina’s seven westernmost counties: Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain.

“Based on rock sampling and geologic mapping conducted by the N.C. Geological Survey during the past three decades, DENR has determined that geologic formations in an area known as the Precambrian rift basin in western North Carolina have the potential to contain natural gas,” said Kritzer. “The agency is still a long way from determining whether this region contains oil and natural gas resources and whether those resources are abundant enough to make energy exploration feasible in this area.”

The Carolina Public Press reported that Gillespie stated DENR plans to spend $11,725 to examine the site for possible fracking. Kritzer said this is a hypothetical amount for a study and no amount has been appropriated yet.

“We’re looking from Murphy to Manteo, across the state, like the General Assembly told us to, to find our resources,” said Gillespie in the Carolina Public Press story.

In North Carolina, fracking was legalized in the summer of 2012, but the General Assembly has maintained a moratorium on granting permits until the regulations can be developed.

Kritzer said DENR has already done a report in March 2012 on the safety of fracking.

“Basically, the conclusion is that hydraulic fracturing can be performed safely provided there are sufficient rules and regulations in place to protect the public’s health and the environment,” said Kritzer.

The report from March 2012 also talks about the need for more information on groundwater resources in the area where drilling for shale gas may occur before making final decisions on environmental standards. The report issues the department’s findings following a study of the potential environmental, social and economic impacts of shale gas exploration and development in North Carolina.

This report was directed by Session Law 2011-276, which required DENR to study the issue of oil and gas exploration in the state and to specifically focus on the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to extract shale gas.

After reviewing other studies and experiences in oil- and gas-producing states, the draft report concludes that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely as long as the right protections are in place, prior to issuing any permits for hydraulic fracturing in North Carolina. As part of the draft report, DENR developed a set of initial recommendations in consultation with the Department of Commerce in the event the General Assembly acts to allow horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in North Carolina, according to a news release from DENR.