North Georgia Emerges as Potential Natural Gas Play

Published January 25, 2017

Despite current low oil and natural gas prices, production may soon begin in the mountains of northern Georgia, where unique geological features may allow production from shale without using hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking.”

The mountains in southern Appalachia are home to the Conasauga Shale, a formation stretching from central Alabama through northwestern Georgia into southeastern Tennessee.

Bill Thomas, a geologist who taught at Georgia State University in Atlanta, estimates the Conasauga Shale has approximately 625 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, about as much as the highly productive Bakken formation.

No Need to Frack

What makes the Conasauga enticing even at today’s prices is the unique geology of northwestern Georgia, where shifting tectonic plates over hundreds of millions of years have naturally fractured the Conasauga’s shale. This may make it possible to extract natural gas without fracking, and therefore less expensively, because the movement of tectonic plates has already freed the natural gas.

This geological anomaly may explain why initial efforts to extract gas from the Conasauga in neighboring Alabama were disappointing. Between 2005 and 2010, drillers in Alabama extracted just 130 million cubic feet of natural gas in St. Clair County, a tiny fraction of what Texas’s Barnett Shale produces in a single day.

As Thomas explained to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in December 2016, drillers in Alabama may have fracked where they shouldn’t have.

“Fracking might actually have decreased the flow instead of increasing it,” Thomas told the newspaper.

Eyeing the Royalties

Many rural landowners in Floyd, Whitfield, Chattooga, and Walker Counties have already leased their mineral rights to drillers, with one Texas company having already locked up mineral rights to 67,000 acres in the region.

Other developments favoring oil and gas in northern Georgia include the August 2016 groundbreaking for a 115-mile pipeline from Dalton to counties west of Atlanta and the beginning of construction on a liquefied natural gas terminal on Elba Island in Savannah in November 2016.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D., director of science policy at The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News, says the United States has institutional advantages over other countries with access to natural gas: Landowners have private property rights to minerals.

“The United States has the lead in development primarily because we are the rare country that grants mineral rights to all landowners,” Lehr said. “Elsewhere, governments own the minerals on private lands.”

Craig Rucker, executive director of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, says technology will continue to open up new oil and gas plays.

“As technology advances, we will find ways to deal with whatever geological challenges come our way,” Rucker said. “Oil and gas have been trapped in shale formations for millions of years. What has changed is our ability to get at them.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.