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Nevadans are about to be dragged into the debate over hydraulic fracturing — fracking to those of us who grew up in the grease orchards.

Houston-based Noble Energy Inc. has announced plans to drill exploratory wells across a 40,000-acre tract of public and private land west of Wells in search of oil and/or natural gas. The company already has completed seismic testing.

Noble’s reach could eventually cover 350,000 acres. The company has stated its chances of success are 55 percent and the area may hold up to 1.3 billion barrels of oil equivalent.

But that energy is expected to be locked in tight rock formations like the Bakken Shale in North Dakota or the Barnett Shale in north Texas. Profitable production may require drilling horizontally through the formation and then cracking the rock by injecting — under high pressure — water, sand and trace amounts of chemicals — fracking.

Environmentalists worry that fracking could contaminate groundwater, even though fracking has been performed on oil and gas wells since the 1940s. The Environmental Protection Agency recently delayed for eight months a report on possible groundwater contamination in Wyoming, possibly because its original finding that it resulted from fracking has been largely debunked.

But if the federal agencies that control 85 percent of the land in Nevada try to interfere with drilling plans by claiming a potential impact on groundwater, they may be in for a legal and political fight.

Rep. Mark Amodei, whose 2nd Congressional District covers most of northern Nevada, says he met recently with the state director of the Bureau of Land Management and her district directors to discuss ongoing issues and head off any jurisdictional conflicts. He noted, for example, that the Forest Service has been trying to force cattle ranchers to dedicate to the Forest Service their stock water rights as a condition of getting a federal grazing permit.

“That’s just flat a violation of state law,” Amodei said, pointing out that the exclusive jurisdiction over water rights in the state lie with the state engineer, Jason King. “So what we are going to be keeping an eye on, I just told them conversationally, which is if you get into issues that are not within your jurisdiction as a land manager — into water quantity, amount of water in the basin and draw down or any of those sorts of things that the state engineer does — then, guess what, we’re going to be buckling up the chin straps, just like we did with the Forest Service.”

The congressman said he is looking at legislation to make this abundantly clear, if needed.

“I think it is clear, but maybe you need a pair of suspenders along with the belt, to say there is no indirect or inferred jurisdiction in NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act), Endangered Species Act or any of these other federal land use or environmental regs, which in any way shape or form supplants or denigrates from authority given to … the state engineer, regarding jurisdiction over groundwater in a state,” he said.

“I feel like we did a pretty clear and relaxed job of just telling them, under this fracking thing, don’t think you’re now going to be the state engineer.”

Despite the recent brouhaha over fracking, the American Oil and Gas Historical Society points out that the first fracking patent was issued in 1866 and nitroglycerin explosions have been used for a 100 years to increase oil production. The first commercial application of hydraulic fracking took place in 1947.

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But fracking’s recent applications in tight rock formations was pioneered by George Mitchell of Texas, who spent decades and billions of dollars developing hydrofracturing techniques in the Barnett Shale formation to produce natural gas. In Bakken Shale it produces oil.

Dan Steward, a former geologist and vice president with Mitchell Energy who wrote a history of the company’s development of the Barnett Shale, observed the industry eventually would have figured out how to make shale gas profitable. “But George Mitchell is responsible for making it happen right now, when we need it.”

Due to fracking, the price of natural gas has fallen from a high of $15 per million British thermal units to $2.50.

I worked as a roustabout for one of Mitchell’s companies in the 1960s. Some got filthy rich in the oil business. Most just got filthy. But it was a job.

Fracking could create much-needed Nevada jobs.


Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may share your views with him by emailing Read additional musings on his blog at

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