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Is Fracking Coming to the Cumberlands?

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Speculation has begun in Eastern Kentucky about a potentially large reserve of oil and natural gas trapped about two miles underground. If the Rogersville Shale is proven productive, it would be the region’s first major oil and gas play. This has excited the industry, but some residents are worried about the toll large-scale oil and gas production would take on human health and the environment.

The Rogersville Shale is a Cambrian-age formation that lies under much of Eastern Kentucky and extends into West Virginia. Two test wells have already been drilled: one in Lawrence County, and another in Putnam County, West Virginia. But Dave Harris of the Kentucky Geological Survey said because the operators have drilled the wells under a special provision called a ‘stratographic test permit,’ the results are confidential.

“It is a potentially productive formation, we just don’t know how much oil and gas,” he said. “No results have been announced, we don’t have any flow rates or production data yet to indicate exactly how prolific this formation might be.”

But increased activity by land agents in several Eastern Kentucky counties suggests that the oil and gas industry thinks Rogersville could be very profitable. More than a year ago, a company called ABARTA Energyposted an exclamation point-laden blog posttalking about the Rogersville Shale.

"ABARTA is currently working on a potential new shale play in Kentucky called the Rogersville shale.  This is a brand new shale that has never produced commercial gas, but information from some old deep test wells indicate potential for vast reserves at great depths.  The Rogersville shale is even older and deeper than the Marcellus or Utica shales and is Cambrian age (+500 million years).  This makes the potential shale play extremely risky and expensive, but the rewards could also be extreme! The Rogersville shale play is located in a deep, narrow sub basin in eastern Kentucky called the Rome Trough.  Drilling depths will likely be about 2 miles deep!"

Landowners in several Eastern Kentucky counties have reported being approached by companies wanting to buy their mineral rights. On an online message board last month, a Lawrence County landowner reported interactions with Chesapeake Energy, who he said offered him $200 per acre for his mineral rights, along with a 12.5 percent royalty on the oil and gas produced from beneath his land.

“It’s going to change the landscape and the way of life for a large number of people in this state,” Jim Scheff said. “And nobody knows about it. The industry is doing it under the radar.”

Scheff is the director of forest preservation non-profit Kentucky Heartwood, and a volunteer with a new citizen group called Frack Free Foothills. He said he knows landowners who have been approached by oil and gas representatives in Madison, Jackson and Rockcastle counties. On the Kentucky Geological Survey’s map of the Rogersville Shale, these are outlying—but still potentially productive—areas. But they’re also areas without any current oil or gas drilling, according to 2013 figures from the Kentucky Oil and Gas Association.

Scheff is worried about the potential effects large-scale oil and gas production could have on human health and the environment in his region. Drawing oil and gas out of Rogersville would require hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, like what’s being done in the Marcellus and Utica shales in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

There’s been oil and gas drilling in Eastern Kentucky for years, but the wells have been shallower. Many operators have used fracking to release oil and gas from the geologic formations, but they’ve used nitrogen. There’s been small-scale hydraulic fracking in Northeastern Kentucky, but if the Rogersville Shale is developed, the fracking would be on an entirely different level, using a mix of millions of gallons of water and chemicals.

Fracking technology has meant that operators can release reserves that weren’t previously possible, which has played a huge role in increasing the country’s shale gas production exponentially since 2000. As many power plants turn away from coal and toward cleaner, cheaper natural gas, the increased production from shale oil and gas has helped move the nation closer to energy independence.

But there’s still a lot that’s unknown about fracking’s side effects on the land and people. Scheff said there’s both anecdotal and scientific evidence of increased instances of birth defects and groundwater contamination near fracking sites. And then there’s the issue of water: both where a company will get the millions of gallons needed to frack a single well, and where it will dispose the chemical-laced water when fracking is finished.

“When a landowner leases their land, they’re putting all these effects that we know happen—increased fatalities, increased illnesses, increased birth defects, contaminated groundwater, contaminated surface water, lower property values, all of those things come to a community when somebody chooses to lease their minerals,” Scheff said.

New York banned fracking late last year, citing too many unanswered questions about the practice’s health and environmental effects. The Environmental Protection Agency has begun studying fracking’s effects on drinking water, but the study is still in progress.

Dave Harris of the Kentucky Geological Survey said though Rogersville seems to have potential, drilling there will be expensive.

“It does have potential to be a fairly significant play,” he said. “Although it is deep, it’s going to be expensive to drill these wells at that depth. So certainly the price of oil and gas is going to have an effect on the economics of the play, whether it’s going to be financially successful to drill these wells or not.”

Kentucky Oil and Gas Association Executive Director Andrew McNeill echoed those concerns via e-mail.

“The Rogersville shale very much remains within a research phase,” he wrote. “The science supports the potential of the shale but a lot of work remains to be done to determine if it is an economically viable resource."

He said the shale could yield "significant" economic development and job creation, but "it is too early to speculate on whether it could compare to other unconventional shale resources that have been developed in Pennsylvania and Ohio.”

In Kentucky, the Environment and Energy Cabinet oversees oil and gas production. A working group made up of industry members and state environmental regulators is discussing changes to the regulations, but a cabinet spokesman said the process is in very early stages and no one would be able to comment at this time.

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