MEC chair defends fracking during public policy luncheon

Oct. 08, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

Natural gas drilling likely will be allowed in North Carolina by early 2015, and Jim Womack told a mix of business leaders, politicians and environmental activists Monday that the practice will be an economic boon.

Womack, a Lee County Commissioner, is also chairman of the state's Mining and Energy Commission. That group is in charge of developing rules and regulations for hydraulic fracturing, which the General Assembly must approve before the process, also known as fracking, can begin. He spoke to a crowd of about 50 at the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce's monthly Public Policy Luncheon, fielding questions and providing updates.

By November or December, seismic testing trucks known as "thumpers" will be seen around Lee County, Womack said. Preliminary drilling for core samples could begin by next spring or summer, followed by a public comment window in September and October 2014 on his group's regulatory proposals. Recommendations will then be sent to the General Assembly and, if approved, the moratorium on drilling could be lifted by March 2015.

Womack estimated that only a few wells would open that first year, and a dozen or so the next year, as companies waited to see how lucrative local gas reserves are. If they find the state's resources to their liking, he said, there could be as many as 55 wells by 2017 and 140 by 2018. As many as 18 wells, he noted, can fit on a single drill pad.

Some fracking opponents, however, wanted to know where energy companies will get the millions of gallons of water required for fracking — a process in which water, sand and various chemicals are blasted into shale to break it up and release the gas trapped inside.

Keely Wood, a Lee County horse farm owner and fracking opponent, said five Texas towns have been left without water in the wake of natural gas drilling. She asked how Lee or Chatham counties would fare any different, and Womack responded that the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources did a study and found that in just half a day, enough gallons flow through the Deep River to provide for all the water local drilling operations would ever need.

"You can shake your head," Womack said as Wood reacted. "But facts are facts. ... This is not Texas."

Conversation later shifted to a recent Duke University study that linked fracking to radioactive water in Pennsylvania. Womack, however, said many companies are now starting to reuse their fracking water. It can't be cleaned and put back into the regular water supply, but it can be recycled for future fracking operations — which he said could cut down on the possibility of that happening here.

Changing topics, Lynda Turbeville asked Womack what he thinks Lee County will look like during and after fracking. She specifically mentioned the wear and tear on roads and increased rates of crime that other areas reportedly have experienced.

"I won't lie to you, there are always growing pains," Womack said, going on to note that North Carolina has the advantage of learning from the other 35 states that already allow fracking. "I believe we'll be the poster child for how to do it right."

Womack said his vision of Lee County after drilling is a positive one. Some counties have seen their tax base grow tenfold, he said, which allows them to invest in schools and other projects. And then there are the jobs, which he said are plentiful and high-paying.

"I think you'll see our median family income go up 50 percent," he said. "I think you'll see that instead of the highest unemployment rate in central Carolina, we'll have the lowest."

John Ramsperger, the leader of the chamber's policy meetings, noted that natural gas prices are incredibly low. He said that would presumably make companies wary about drilling and asked Womack if that was a proper assumption to make.

Explaining that the industry's strategy has been to increase demand by dropping prices, Womack said that both Duke Energy and the City of Detroit have recently begun switching to natural gas, and that as more big customers buy in, prices should rise. Plus, he said, prices in Europe are four to five times higher than in the U.S., so companies can always export gas.

Throughout the meeting, Wood and others continued pressing Womack about potential risks involved in fracking, with Womack responding that their accusations either weren't true or were overstated. The tension grew until Ramsperger cut off questions because the meeting had already run past its alloted time.

Chamber of Commerce President Bob Joyce ended the luncheon and the tension, getting a round of laughs in return, by inviting anyone who felt like shooting something to the chamber's upcoming shotgun competition at Deep River Sporting Clays.