How Worries Over Private Property Led To Georgia's First Fracking Rules
Rome, Georgia, like that other Rome, is a city of three rivers. In this case, the Oostanaula and Etowah come together downtown to make the Coosa, which flows on into Alabama. That’s where Larry Lassiter walked his dog Fiona on a recent afternoon.
“It’s just a really nice are up here,” Lassiter said.
Georgia Power has a plan to close the coal-fired power plants in northwest Georgia not far from Rome. Natural gas will continue to pick up the slack in electrical generation left by coal. That’s helped cut Georgia Power’s carbon emissions by half in a little over a decade.
So, Larry Lassiter said he understands the need to get natural gas out of the ground, just maybe not the ground he lives on.
“We’ve got to have the resources to maintain life,” Lassiter said. “But do it in a manner that doesn’t destroy your private property.”
New state level regulations on fracking in Georgia are aimed exactly at giving private landowners some say on how and where gas and oil extraction can happen in the state. Throw in what natural gas sells for these days, and it’s hard to see how Georgia’s natural gas will ever come out of the ground.
Natural gas permeates the rock of the shale the way water fills a sponge. Fracking is when fluids are pumped at enormous pressure into shale formations to break them up and free the gas. The Conasauga Shale rock formation runs from down in Alabama, through northwest Georgia and on into Tennessee. Like many in the region, Lassiter worries what would happen to the stone his house is perched on should fracking ever come to the mountains.
“It's kind of like taking a car and shaking it. That's what it's doing to the ground,” Lassiter said.
Once the shaking is over and the rock is shattered, natural gas can sometimes get into underground aquifers, which in northwest Georgia can flow to the Coosa River basin.
Jerry Spalvieri, a natural gas prospector from Oklahoma, was one of the people who first suggested to Georgians that they could make money from gas trapped in their land. That happened after wildcatters started putting wells in the ground over in Alabama. He said, at first, Georgians were excited. He even put in one test well way up in Dalton. Then, word spread and the winds shifted. Spalvieri said people got afraid of the word fracking.
“I had to do town hall meetings,” Spalvieri said. “You know we had 100 people at the Rome library.”
Spalvieri said it turned into one of those not-in-my-backyard situations. Nimby it’s sometimes called. People wanted to know their private well water, and the region’s water in general, would be safe if their neighbors decided to drill. Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, said he understood their worries.
“They were legitimately concerned about what this would mean for water quality and what pathway they would have to be made whole if there was some kind of contamination in groundwater,” Demonbreun-Chapman said.
Demonbreun-Chapman organized those town halls where Jerry Spalvieri found himself defending fracking and natural gas exploration. Those town halls would go on to be instrumental in creating Georgia’s new fracking regulations. But first Demonbreun-Chapman had to argue fracking should even be regulated in the first place.
Northwest Georgia is deeply conservative and, at least in the last election, very supportive of Donald Trump, who is bullish on fossil fuels. Demonbreun-Chapman said he’d forgive you for thinking opposing fracking wouldn’t go well here.
“We would have been branded that left leaning group spreading lies about fracking,” he said.
So instead he took another tack.
“We made this a private landowner issue,” he said.
Remember Larry Lassiter down by the river, asking that whatever you do to get the gas, don’t damage private property? Demonbreun-Chapman convened all the Larry Lassiters worried about their homes and their water in those town halls. Because fracking on one farm could damage land or contaminant a well on the farm next door, he argued fracking rules for all could protect individual property rights.
“And framed that way, everybody was all of a sudden, ‘Well absolutely! That should be everyone's right,’” he said.
Demonbreun-Chapman said the region was also fortunate to have a representative in the Georgia House of Representatives who was receptive to what people said in the town hall meetings.
Johnny Meadows was a Republican from Calhoun who, as the chair of the House Rules Committee, was the second most powerful person in the house. He made the cause of giving private landowners say in drilling and fracking his own.
“And he believed in the value of clean water and how essential that is for his district,” Demonbreun-Chapman said.
Meadows passed away in late 2018.
The problem was that Georgia’s first oil and gas rules were passed in 1970 before fracking was even a thing. So job one: define fracking. After that, April Lipscomb, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said lawmakers added transparency for land owners into how drilling permits would be granted.
“And included in that requirement are things like requiring groundwater monitoring before during and after fracking activities,” Lipscomb said.
In other parts of the country, city or county governments have been locked out of the fracking permitting process.
“Our law does the exact opposite. It explicitly allows local governments to do more,” Lipscomb said.
For instance, Dade County already has an outright ban on fracking. That would hold sway over a state granted fracking permit.
In all, it only took two years to get the new regulations through the General Assembly and onto the desk of then Gov. Nathan Deal who signed it into law in 2018. Ironically, that window was only open because successful fracking in other states flooded the market with natural gas, pushing prices into the basement and suppressing demand for Georgia fossil fuels.
Those still low prices are one reason prospector Jerry Spalvieri has cooled a bit on northwest Georgia.
“Right now it’s no gold rush,” he said.
And unless the market one day improves, and northwest Georgians give the nod, the gas trapped in the Conasauga Shale is not likely coming out of the ground.
Georgia’s fracking regulations went into effect this summer.