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Potential fracking bidders tour UT drill site in Morgan County

7:37 PM, Jun 21, 2013   |    comments
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The University of Tennessee is moving ahead with plans to drill for natural gas on its property in Morgan and Scott Counties via a method known as "fracking."

The word "fracking" means to fracture rocks deep underground by drilling horizontal wells and pumping them with pressurized gas and/or liquid.  The pressure shatters bedrock and can release trapped fuel such as natural gas and oil.

The practice has generated environmental concerns and debate, as 10News outlined in-depth during a May 2013 report on the future of fracking in East Tennessee

Despite objections from environmental groups, UT formally issued a request for proposals (RFP) from natural gas companies to partner with the school and drill for the riches deep beneath the surface of its property in the Cumberland Forest.

On Friday morning, the UT Ag Research Institute held a pre-bid conference to give potential bidders an overview of the project, protocol for submitting questions, and timelines for submitting bids.

The morning session concluded with Cumberland Forest manager Martin Schubert leading a caravan of vehicles on a tour of the potential drill site.

"This is an old strip mine road.  It goes about three quarters of a mile up the mountain and is about a 1,000 foot climb," said Schubert as he drove a Jeep up the steep and bumpy dirt road.  "This forest was deeded to UT by the mining company in the 1930s and there were still mining operations here until the 1950s."

UT's Institute of Agriculture aims to lease the mineral rights at the site to a drilling company.  While the school admits the project can be profitable, it says the money generated would be reinvested in the research project.  UT leaders contend research into the effects of fracking is the ultimate goal of the project.

"There has been a lot of misinformation out there about what kind of fracking we'll be doing here.  We are not talking about doing hydraulic fracking where you inject water into the ground like they've done in Pennsylvania where people are worried about groundwater contamination," said Kevin Hoyt, director of the UT Forest Resources Ag Research and Education Center.  "In this case we're proposing to inject pressurized nitrogen gas to cause the fracture.  That is what natural gas companies are doing in Tennessee because water is mostly for gas that is extremely deep.  Our shale is at a much more shallow depth."

Hoyt said the bidder who is awarded a contract will not take command of the project, but will become a partner under the direction of the university.

"You know, we're not drillers. The driller is just a partner that will put the hole in the ground for us to investigate the environmental impacts and effects before, during, and after the process [of fracking]."

Schubert said the abundance of natural gas at relatively shallow depths has already resulted in private companies drilling dozens of active fracking wells near the Cumberland Forest.

"We know there is natural gas underneath us.  We know because there are productive wells all around us," said Schubert.

Some question why UT cannot simply conduct research on existing fracking wells rather than drilling its own money-maker on state property.  Concerns have also been raised regarding the potential for environmental damage and air contamination from gas leaks.   Furthermore, at other schools where fracking partnerships have taken place, there have been allegations of various conflicts of interests that discredit the research results. 

Critics of the UT's plan are also not appeased by statements that drilling will follow all TDEC regulations.  The establishment of the rules was criticized by environmentalists because Tennessee's Oil and Gas Board is comprised of individuals employed by oil and gas companies.

UT counters by saying the fact that companies are already drilling wells in Tennessee emphasizes the importance of having objective researchers study the process from beginning to end.  Hoyt and Schubert expressed a belief that the research on a controlled site with fewer variables than an existing commercial operation can help establish credible best practices.

"People have concerns about this activity, not just in the Cumberland Forest but everywhere.  From my perspective, who better to conduct this research and address these concerns than the researchers we have in the Institute of Agriculture?  I work with them and know that they have been good stewards of this property for a very long time," said Schubert.  "I have lived at this forest for 15 years and it is my home, too.  What they are putting in the ground is nitrogen, which is the most abundant gas in our atmosphere.  I believe it is relatively benign and the researchers will keep a constant monitor on any possible pollution or leaks."

Any drilling contract will require the approval of the UT Board of Trustees when it meets this October. Then the contract must be approved by the State Building Commission.  UT said that approval process means it does not expect any drilling to actually occur for at least another year.

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