Published on April 24th, 2013 | by Atlanta Editorial Team3
Fracking Comes to Georgia
The hills of Northwest Georgia are now believed to harbor trillions of cubic feet of natural gas that have remained untouched until now. Shale gas drilling is slowing across the country, but a handful of companies are poking around this corner of the state. If they succeed, Georgia could join the ranks of states reaping jobs, revenue and fears of environmental damage from energy production.
An Oklahoma-based company that leased 7,500 acres of land outside Dalton has two test wells in place and plans another nearby. Seventy miles away, near Cave Spring, a Texas oil, gas and development conglomerate plans a deeper well. At least three other companies have recently researched the so-called Conasauga shale field, a 20-by-100-mile corridor of farm and forest that runs from Alabama across Georgia and into Tennessee.
Speculation over unproven deposits may seem premature with a gas glut and low prices making extraction economically unfeasible in many parts of the country. Production has throttled down in Pennsylvania, Texas and Kentucky. Plus, Georgia doesn’t have the infrastructure —the trucks, tanks, pipes and refineries— needed to transform a liquid into a fuel to heat homes and cook food.
The ultimate stakes though, will be high, because all fossil fuels comprise a limited, non-renewable resource. In Alabama, the Conasauga shale field contains 625 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to Bill Thomas, a geologist who taught at the University of Kentucky and Georgia State. A similar amount could be underground in Northwest Georgia, he adds.
Drilling for oil and gas has proved unproductive in the past, but new hydraulic fracturing techniques, or “fracking”, promises to extract natural gas trapped in underground geological structures beneath the water table by means of injecting a mix of solvents and other caustic chemicals under intense pressure.
It is that process, which has reportedly spoiled fresh drinking water supplies and even caused small earthquakes, that has environmentalists and some landowners to become alarmed. The lease money that has started to flow from the gas companies is bringing some people a windfall, but the potential drawbacks are just beginning to be discovered, with no long-term studies to illuminate the way ahead.
Regulators in nearby Tennessee and North Carolina are updating drilling and fracking rules. A natural gas industry in Georgia could also bring the state jobs and tax revenue. A major public debate is underway about an issue that could affect our state for centuries.