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The future of fracking in East Tennessee

10:48 PM, May 15, 2013   |    comments
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(WBIR - Knoxville) The debate over fracking continues in East Tennessee as UT moves forward with its proposal to bring the controversial energy extraction process to the Cumberland Forest.

The University of Tennessee has considered the idea of fracking the 8,300-acre Cumberland Forest, which lays in Morgan and Scott Counties, since at least 2001. But, the process is not new to Tennessee.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation say it has been performed in the state since the 1960s. Fracking, which is formally known as hydraulic fracturing, uses highly pressurized gases and liquids to crack rocks beneath the Earth's surface.

"It means putting anything in down a well under pressure that will make the rock strata where your trying to get gas or oil, whatever you're looking for, crack or fissure so it will let gas or oil come up the well more easily," said Jonathon Burr, TDEC biologist.

Critics have scrutinized fracking because they say it harms the environment. In Pennsylvania, the process has been frequently used on the Marcellus Shale beneath the Earth. Since the Marcellus Shale lies deep below the ground, hundreds of thousands of gallons of water must be used to fracture rock. The mixture of chemicals, and all of the water used in the fracking process, has resulted in numerous complaints of groundwater contamination by the residents living near drill sites.

"And, they're using really large quantities of it [water]," Burr said. "It's like one to five million gallons of water per well, plus some additives in it that help the process. That's kind of what started some of the concern publicly and with some justification."

But, in Tennessee, the process is different. Underneath the eastern portion of the state is the Chattanooga Shale. It is shallower than its respective counterpart to the north. Its depth requires fracking companies to treat it differently. They cannot use large amounts of water because the shale will react negatively. So, according to TDEC, fracking companies East Tennessee tend to rely on using nitrogen gas as alternative. They put the gas down wells, typically no bigger nine inches in diameter.

While some water is still used in the process, nitrogen gas takes over as the main pressurized component, ultimately decreasing the chance for groundwater contamination.

"We haven't seen that [groundwater contamination] in Tennessee so far," he said.

In 2012, TDEC says it received around 100 applications to drill oil and gas wells. It estimates there are about 10 to 15 companies actively drilling for oil and gas in the state. But, while the agency requires operators to submit a well history to indicate if a well has been horizontally fracked in the past, it does not actively track whether the process is being currently used at a drill site.

Fracking has been known to occur in Overton, Fentress, Pickett, Scott, Campbell, Anderson and Morgan counties. Fracked wells are also at TWRA's Frozen Head State Park and Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area. But, those are wells that were on the property before TWRA acquired the land.

Previous Story: Environmentalists want fracking rules in East TN

While fracking occurs more frequently in the North, it stirred up enough debate recently in East Tennessee bring about new regulations on the process. The state Oil and Gas Board approved some of the following rules September 2012.

  • Operators must publicly disclose all of the chemicals used in the process.
  • Drill sites that use more than 200,000 gallons of water-based liquids must be disclosed on a public website. Sites using less than 200,000 gallons of water-based liquids must be disclosed in a well completion report.
  • If a drill site uses more than 200,000 gallons of water, the driller must test the neighbors' drinking water for quality. Also, a public notice must be given in advance of the well's installation.

All of those rules go into effect June 2013.

While the disclosure of drill sites using less than 200,000 gallons of liquid will be a public record, available to residents at their request, some environmentalists say they are still skeptical.

"We're not going to know until after the fact how much they used and my suspicion is a lot of jobs will probably be 199,000 gallons," said Renee Hoyos, executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network.

Learn More: The UT Gas and Oil Initiative

Other groups say they are still concerned about the University of Tennessee's proposal to frack the Cumberland Forest as well.

In March, the State Building Commission gave UT permission to seek an industry partner who could help it frack the property.

UT maintains the proposal will fulfill its mission as a land grant university. It says it wants to better explore how fracking impacts air quality, water quality and terrestrial ecosystems. UT said it also wants to study what the best management policies for fracking are.

UT has controlled the Cumberland Forest since 1937 and has conducted numerous environmental studies on the property since then. It says the property has come a long way from the days when it was used for strip mining.

It said it would not place the fracking site near a place in the forest where it would harm other ecosystems or water sources.

Read: The SELC Letter to the State Building Commission

But, the Southern Environmental Law Center opposes the plan. It says it concerned fracking could harm unique forestry found in the northern tract of the Cumberland Forest. It is also worried about the potential harm that could be done to the surrounding ground water.

"There has not been a public debate over whether this is a appropriate place for this kind of drilling to occur," said SELC Attorney Gwen Parker.

But, the center's concerns go deeper than that. It also says UT has a conflict of interest in the proposal that could harm its credibility. The center obtained emails and documents between UT colleagues that it says proves the university is interested in fracking for monetary reasons.

In 2012, UT Institute of Agriculture (UTIA) Professor Dr. Roland Mote wrote an email that read, "My congratulations to the person who came up with the creative idea for a fracking research project as a means of gaining approval to lease petroleum reserves under the Cumberland Forest. I hope the lease yields much money for the experiment station."

A 2008 email from UT System President Joe DiPietro, who was then the chancellor of the UTIA, wrote another colleague, "I'd appreciate an update and some sense of time line [sic] for approval and needed steps. Given the budgetary concerns we face, it is more important than ever."

"It's insurmountable," SELC attorney Anne Davis. "Because, what UT is doing is providing the income to do the study."

UT admits it does have a financial interest in the project, but solely to fuel its research. It said that is a model it relies on for most of its studies.

"We work with industry because much of the technologies that our faculty will develop will be implemented and be taken to the marketplace by industry and so we must work in a collaborative manner," said Dr. Bill Brown, dean of UT AgResearch.

The university also said that it will maintain control of the project regardless of the industry partner it teams up with. It added that it will also publicly release the names of faculty members who may have a conflict of interest while working on the project.

"It's part of our mission, we've been tasked to do this and we have felt compelled that we have the scientific background, know-how and faculty members [needed] that we can do a good job on the ground," said Dr. Kevin Hoyt, Director of UT Forest Resources Research and Education.

More Information: Read the March State Building Commission Minutes

It is important to note, UT's proposal is not set in stone. After it finds an industry partner, it will have go back to the State Building Commission for approval on the project. TDEC said UT would also have to follow the same protocol as any other entity interested in fracking in the state.

UT says the energy companies Atlas Energy and Knox Energy have expressed interest in a partnership. Miller Energy Resources told 10News it is also interested in the plan as well.

As for the state's economy, Burr says it is unlikely East Tennessee will be the next great frontier of fracking. He said companies have fracked the areas around Pennsylvania so much that there is an abundance of natural gas on the market. As a result, the fuel's price is low and there is little profit to be made, making it improbable new companies will expand into the region.

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