This week, we Take 5 with Ed Harris Jr., a Lee County property owner, on the subject of hydraulic fracturing and landowners’ rights. Harris, a member of the American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans, grew up in the Center Church area near South Plank Road in Lee County. He and his wife, Doris, have been married 35 years and operated Ed Harris Enterprises Inc. — which operated in property development, land speculation, rentals and the hog, cattle and poultry industry — for 17 years before retiring.
You've been a landowner in Lee County for half a century. How did you initially get involved in the issue of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing?
I first learned of fracking from a letter to the editor in The Herald written by Laura Johnson. In her letter, she addressed the use of eminent domain by the state to take private property rights from citizens and give them to private companies, including the oil and gas industry. This, in my mind, is totally un-American, unacceptable and unnecessary.
What was your first exposure to Senate Bill 820, which legalized hydraulic fracturing in North Carolina?
I learned that SB820 calls this process “Integration of resources,” also commonly referred to as compulsory pooling or “forced” pooling. This does nothing but save the oil and gas companies the extra cost of going around landowners who do not wish for their property to be “fracked.” It is not for the public good. It is only for the good of the bottom line of the company account.
Which sections of the bill are you specifically opposed to, and why?
Part 5, Section 4a, paragraph b, on page 18 of SB 820 allows the oil and gas company, when they do not have surface rights to a property, to send a landowner a letter by certified mail informing him that they are sending a crew to the property in 30 days, and then to do so.
This crew will survey, cut timber, put in roads, pipelines, storage tanks, even drill a well on the property against the landowner's will. This was only supposed to cover situations called “split” or “separate” estates, where the landowner purchased land and the seller kept the mineral rights. This section, however, does not address the difference between split estates and properties that have been “force pooled.”
We also have a situation where the owner of an oil and gas company is a member of the committee deciding what rules will be followed when taking the personal property rights from citizens who do not want to be fracked.
I do not trust this committee to have the best interests of landowners as their primary concern. Their decisions must be suspect because their decisions will affect the balance sheet of oil and gas companies.
Paragraph b1 in this same section makes the landowner responsible for the safety of the crew while they are on the property. This places the landowner in a “gray area” as far as insurance is concerned. Homeowners’ insurance may not cover this crew because they are on the property against the owner's will and not a guest. Farm liability insurance may not cover them because they are not employees of the landowner.
The N. C. Mining & Energy Commission has the responsibility of rewriting and refining SB820 and doing so in a very short period of time. Now the state legislature wants to rush the process even more. We should not allow this to happen. Our property rights and our environment is too precious.
The MEC will be with us as a regulatory body long after this fight is over. In the future, one of their duties will be to settle disputes between landowners asking for exemptions from the takeover of property by the oil and gas companies. In part 2d, paragraph C on page 12 of SB820, however, there is a line that states that whenever an exception is granted, the commission “shall” take such action as will offset any advantage which the person securing the exception may have over producers.
This type of language needs defining. Does this mean that the MEC can only make a decision in favor of the oil and gas company? We need to slow this process down and make sure we put landowners in the driver’s seat and not the oil and gas companies! If we allow eminent domain to be used this way by the oil and gas industry, it will be used against landowners by other industries.
Do you share concerns others have expressed about potential harm to the environment?
Just consider also the stories out of states that have allowed fracking about water, soil and air pollution. There is just too much smoke for there not to be fire where these stories are concerned.
The chairman of the MEC recently compared stories of water contamination caused by fracking to stories of people being abducted by aliens. Think about this: people in an area have used water sources there for hundreds and even thousands of years with no problems. A fracking operation starts up, and out of the blue, you can set your water on fire. It changes color, tastes bad and you are told by the local health officials that you can’t use it. If the only thing that has changed or is new in the area is a fracking operation, where would a reasonable person suspect the problem came from?
This is happening in every state where fracking is ongoing. We are now and have been in a drought situation for some time. Farm ponds and area lakes are drying up. Each gas well drilled can use millions of gallons of water. Where is this water going to come from?
Our county and state roads have gone steadily downhill over the last 20 years from a lack of maintenance due to a lack of tax dollars for repairing them. Traffic has increased dramatically during the same period. With each fracking operation, we will be adding thousands of heavy loads to a system that is already overloaded. Are we going to increase taxes on the citizens of N.C. to repair the additional damage and stress to our highway system? Can we tax the oil and gas companies heavily enough to cover the additional cost to repair and maintain our roads?
So what needs to be done to make fracking work in North Carolina — or can it?
I support the rights of property owners who wish to lease or sell their mineral rights to do so, and the right of the oil and gas companies to buy those mineral rights. But I — and other property owners — who do not wish to sell our mineral rights have rights, too. We have the right to refuse to sell. We have the right to be left alone to enjoy the peace, quiet and tranquility of our home. And yes, many of us consider our land to be our home. Our land is an extension of our living room. The taking of property rights is a serious thing and should not be undertaken without much consideration and discussion. It certainly should not be decided by oil and gas company executives and their cronies.
From 6-10 p.m. on Feb. 12, there will be a meeting of landowners concerned about fracking in courtroom # 4 at the old courthouse in Sanford. There will be several speakers, after which the people will be encouraged to voice their concerns and questions.