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How'd all that fracking fun start in North Carolina anyway?

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This week I interviewed Jim Simons, the former director of the N.C. Division of Land Resources, about his battle with Parkinson’s disease, his participation in drug clinical trials and his work as a research advocate.

Simons, 64, retired in May so he could spend more of his good hours with his wife and family. He grew up in High Point, got a degree in geology from UNC-CH and spent the past 40 years in Raleigh working for the state, the last 10 as the state geologist.

The Division of Land Resources was recently renamed the Division of Energy, Mineral and Land Resources after it was given dominion over oil and gas exploration. Gas, as in shale gas, as in fracking.

We spent some time talking about his position on fracking, information that didn’t really fit into what I was writing, but it seemed worth sharing.

“My staff rediscovered natural gas in North Carolina. You could say it was my fault. One of our geologists had an extensive background in the petroleum industry. On his own time and expense, he had been collecting data on the Deep River Basin, which is the center of the controversy right now. It’s around Sanford. He came to me and said, ‘Jim, it’s looking a whole lot like we might have an organic shale deposit that has a lot of the same characteristics as Marcellus up in Pennsylvania.’ We got the USGS interested in it. They gave us a grant to do geo-chemical studies. The state had drilled some wells back in the ’80s and ’90s and found some but not enough to make it attractive. But they weren’t looking for shale gas; They were looking for conventional natural gas. Nobody was thinking in terms of fracking or this horizontal drilling back then.

“So we did some studies and presented some papers, primarily my colleagues. Being trained in North Carolina, I never had a lot of training in Northern gas. Geologists are very congenial to each other. We sit down and have a beer and hoot and holler. If you present a professional paper and don’t have your mess together, you will get quickly shouted down. Nobody shouted us down. Next thing we know, out-of-state companies are taking samples of our samples and doing their own research. Some started leasing land. That was some affirmation of the work we had done. We did some more work and made a presentation to USGS summer of 2011. We kept waiting to hear from USGS. We thought it was between 1 and 2 trillion cubic feet, and they came out with something like 1.7, which is nothing like Marcellus. We have a few thousand acres. Marcellus is a few thousand square miles. We’ll never be Pennsylvania. We do not have that much gas. How much we have, we don’t know. Even the USGS is a very conservative estimate. We won’t know until we drill more wells."

So does he think fracking is safe?

“It’s safe ‘if.’ It’s safe if certain safeguards are taken. Can you screw it up yet? Just like BP did. That well was supposed to be safe. The technology is there to do it properly. Will we have to pass the rules to ensure safety? Probably we will. Will we have the resources to enforce it? We’ll have to see.

“The best guesses are that hydrocarbons are going to be in our future one way or another for the next 20 or 30 years. In the meantime, why not use gas that’s homegrown and less polluting than coal or Middle Eastern oil? And do we really want to build a whole lot more nuclear power plants? Do we want to deal with coal and coal ash? You don’t get anything for free. Yes, it takes some water, but Lord have mercy, what about coal? You’re tearing up a hillside, endangering miners, then you have to burn it and put up coal ash. Then you have to fight wars in the Middle East. You don’t get this for free. You gotta be willing to do something natural. Shale gas right now seems like a plausible transition fuel until we can get to wind power, solar power, whatever we’re going to do.

“I will still be following fracking. I might get involved in that later, on committees, if I have the opportunity to do so. I think it can be a good thing for the state if you do it right.

“We went to Pennsylvania to look at things. Coming back at the airport, one of the legislators asked me, ‘Jim, what do you think about fracking?’ I said, ‘If I didn’t think it could be done right, you would have never have heard about it.'

“I worked 39 years in environmental protection. I’m not going to bring up anything that’s going to hurt what I was trying to protect for 39 years. I felt it was a good thing if done right. The devil is in the details. There are smarter people than me working on it, but if they need somone to cheer or boo from the sidelines, I’ll be there.”


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About the blogger

Burgetta Eplin Wheeler is the associate editor of the Editorial pages, responsible for the Other Opinion page. She occasionally writes editorials. She can be reached at bwheeler@newsobserver.com or 829-4825.