Regulate Fracking Before It Starts in Georgia, Group Says

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By Chris Marr

Nov. 18 — Stricter regulation of oil and gas drilling, including hydraulic fracturing rules, could be on the agenda for Georgia’s next legislative session if environmental advocates get their wish.

Georgia’s history of oil and gas drilling is all but non-existent, but exploration companies have secured mineral leases around northwest Georgia in recent years, hoping to tap into potentially abundant natural gas in the Conasauga shale, the Georgia Water Coalition said in its latest “Dirty Dozen” report.

The annual report highlights what the coalition sees as noteworthy threats to the state’s streams, lakes and groundwater, and the potential of fracking with little regulatory oversight has the coalition concerned.

“I don’t think drilling is imminent, but if natural gas prices go up and it becomes economically viable to produce in the Conasauga shale, then I think we’ll see that,” Joe Cook of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, a part of the water coalition, told Bloomberg BNA on Nov. 17.

The coalition is working to get a bill drafted and recruit state legislators to sponsor it for the 2017 session, which begins Jan. 9. Cook said he has heard positive feedback initially from Republican legislative leaders. Ten city and county governments so far approved resolutions in favor of tightening the state’s oil and gas law.

The coalition wants the state to require groundwater monitoring around fracking wells, disclosure of chemicals used for fracking, and proper disposal of fracking fluids, in addition to more public notice and public comment requirements, according to its report.

Current law allows the state to permit oil or gas wells within 15 days of request with no public comment period, Cook said.

Little Testing, No Production

The state has no history of producing oil and gas and limited history of companies drilling test wells—the most recent being three or four years ago, state geologist Jim Kennedy told Bloomberg BNA on Nov. 18. Kennedy handles permitting oil and gas wells for the state’s Environmental Protection Division.

“In Georgia there’s very little interest as far as I can see in exploring for gas, and zero interest in oil. I imagine that’s because the price of gas is so low,” Kennedy said.

The state continues to see “wildcatters” speaking to property owners about leasing their mineral rights, he said. Interest in drilling could revive if oil and gas prices rebound, but it is hard to predict when that might happen, he said.

The most recent test wells were drilled near Dalton, Ga., in the northwest part of the state near the Tennessee border. Buckeye Exploration Co., based in Chandler, Okla., drilled two vertical wells without the use of hydraulic fracturing, Kennedy said.

At one site, Buckeye hit groundwater and stopped. At the other it drilled to its full permitted depth of 5,000 feet. The company hasn’t requested a permit for a production well, he said.

Kennedy acknowledged the state’s oil and gas drilling law, which dates to 1975, might be due for an update, but added it is possible the revisions could be made through an EPD rulemaking process instead of legislation.

The threat of fracking to groundwater is already limited by separate regulations, he said, pointing to the state’s underground injection control regulations.

Any permit requests for fracking would be subject to the underground injection rules, which require the types of protections the water coalition seeks, even though the current regulations don’t specifically refer to oil and gas drilling, according to Kennedy.

“It’s more implied rather than explicit,” he said.

Any proposed legislation would need to win the approval of a Republican-controlled state House and Senate and Gov. Nathan Deal (R). State legislators haven’t had a chance to establish much of a track record on oil and gas issues.

Lawmakers did approve a bill ( H.B. 1036) in the 2016 session temporarily blocking state permitting of petroleum pipelines while a legislative study committee evaluates the permitting process.

The bill’s passage led to Kinder Morgan suspending its planned $1 billion, 360-mile Palmetto Pipeline from South Carolina to Florida.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Marr in Atlanta at cMarr@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

For More Information

The water coalition’s “Dirty Dozen” report is available at http://src.bna.com/kbG.H.B. 1036 is available at http://src.bna.com/eGg.

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