LOOKING BACK AT 2013: '2013 was quite a roller coaster ride'
As 2014 continues, state and local officials will be putting some of the finishing touches on rules and regulations for hydraulic fracturing, and energy companies will likely continue leasing land at a similar or accelerated pace.
But for all the developments yet to come, 2013 was itself quite the busy year for fracking — the controversial natural gas extraction process which, if legalized by the state, would focus largely on Lee County and bordering areas in Chatham and Moore counties. Several study groups within state government released reports on their findings and recommendations for a variety of regulatory areas, and others are expected to finish within the year.
The study groups are part of the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, a group led by Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack. The work is on target, he told The Herald in an interview last month, to be finished by this coming fall — despite some delays in areas that turned out to be especially contentious.
"We've had to delay the discussion and passage of a couple of highly controversial rules," Womack said. "Namely the chemical disclosure rule."
He also acknowledged the large amount of debate surrounding compulsory pooling, although that study is now complete.
The compulsory pooling study group was led by Ray Covington, a former chemistry professor and university administrator who is also a prominent landowner in Lee County. A small but dedicated group of activists attended his study group's meetings in Raleigh, Sanford and other locations. Several denounced the idea of compulsory pooling as un-American, but the study group was not swayed.
It recommended allowing any holdouts to be forced into a drilling pool if the vast majority of rights in an area are leased voluntarily, "in the interest of protecting the correlative rights of landowners and minimizing waste." The group also suggested a host of other protections and regulations.
Another study group on local government, led by Sanford City Councilman and 3M official Charles Taylor, recommended city and county governments be afforded some power to add their own rules and regulations — but not so much power as to be able to stop fracking altogether, noting that cell phone towers are regulated similarly. The group issued recommendations on a wide variety of subjects, from noise and light pollution to setback distances, water and air quality, emergency preparedness and more.
The group also studied drilling's impact on local infrastructure, such as water supply and roads. It found that in a typical drilling operation, which takes two to three months, there will be 1,000 or more heavy truck trips per well, plus about 6 million gallons of water mixed with chemicals and pumped into the ground.
"The study group also encourages industry to reuse water on site, to reduce hauling traffic and to mitigate total site impact," the recommendation report states.
And while the Mining and Energy Commission and its committees and study groups march on, some non-governmental groups will continue fighting to raise awareness about their objections — mainly, that potential environmental, social and health risks associated with fracking are too large to ignore for the sake of the economic benefits that supporters tout.
"I think 2013 was quite a roller coaster ride, honestly," said Therese Vick, a community organizer with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. "As far as regulations and development of the rule sets, the two biggest ones have been the chemical disclosure, which isn't done yet, and [compulsory pooling]."
She doesn't approve of compulsory pooling, she said, and is worried that there won't be enough transparency about the chemicals used in fracking.
Vick, who is based out of Raleigh, added that her group is working with locals in Lee, Chatham, Anson and Stokes counties and is also in talks with people from Moore County. With that growing regional support, she said, as well as a bigger national spotlight on fracking, she said she hopes 2014 will be a more fruitful year than 2013 for activists.
Her new year's resolution, at least as far as the environment is concerned?
"To prevent fracking in North Carolina," she said.