'The good, the bad, the ugly'
A de facto ban remains on hydraulic fracturing and other natural gas development in North Carolina, but all the conversation at a joint meeting of various government and business officials Wednesday morning focused on when — and not if — the controversial process gets started in Lee County.
Mike Chadsey, spokesman for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, flew into town Monday and spoke at the meeting, which included representatives of the Sanford, Broadway and Lee County governments, as well as Lee County Schools, the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce, the Lee County Economic Development Corporation, Central Carolina Community College and others.
Chadsey, as public relations director of a large industry group, spoke mainly about the benefits of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing — especially the economic windfall that he said local and state governments receive in the form of increased sales tax, property tax and excise tax revenue.
And while he acknowledged that most of the more technical jobs related to geology or the drilling process still go to people from Texas and Oklahoma because companies want experienced workers, Chadsey said many other direct and indirect jobs go to locals and don’t require years of education or prior experience. Welders, truck drivers, well tenders, diesel mechanics and machinists are the top five most in-demand positions, he said.
“When we were growing up, our parents told us we had to go to college to get a career — not so much now,” he said. “We’ve got welders making six figures and working six to nine months a year.”
But Chadsey’s presentation wasn’t all optimism. Taking a cue from actor Clint Eastwood, he broke various realities of the industry into “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” in which jobs and tax revenue were the good, public health emergencies were the bad, and environmental activists were the ugly.
As for the health hazards, Chadsey briefly touched on a few and said several were the fault of one rogue operator who is now being prosecuted and sued, much to his group’s delight because they support responsible practices.
Brad Simpson, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, asked specifically about earthquakes in the Youngstown area attributed to the natural gas industry.
Chadsey said a special well for waste water injection — since fracking fluids can’t be cleaned by wastewater treatment plants, they have to be disposed of in other ways — was drilled too deep and accidentally triggered about a dozen small earthquakes. However, according to a scientific study released this month, it actually triggered an average of 12 earthquakes per month for more than a year, totaling 167 in all. Most, though, were too small to be felt by humans.
Chadsey said Ohio has since banned drilling as deep as the well that caused those earthquakes and has forbidden such wells to be drilled near fault lines, and there haven’t been issues since then. In North Carolina, regulations are still being formed, but Lee and Chatham counties — where much of the state’s fracking would take place — are home to the Jonesboro Fault system.
The man in charge of the state’s regulatory discussions is Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack. He was in attendance Wednesday and asked, among other things, about two counties in Ohio that are now completely debt-free; Chadsey said it’s no coincidence that they’re also some of the areas with the most fracking activity.
Bob Joyce, president of the Chamber of Commerce, asked about the business effect drilling has in some of the smaller counties it enters, both good and bad. He gave a few examples, including rising rent costs.
Chadsey said property owners often do engage in rent price-gouging because the salaries mining companies pay are so high, they know they can get away with it. But he said sometimes, enterprising locals build a hotel aimed at the gas workers and rent goes back down. Addressing another of Joyce’s concerns, Chadsey said that he has indeed heard of local auto shops losing all their mechanics to the higher salaries of mining companies.
“We tend to suck a lot of the air out of the room when we come into a community,” Chadsey said, adding that they’re aware of that and ask individual companies to try to be reasonable when hiring away local talent in smaller communities. He added that where there’s drilling, there also tends to be a boom in the service, restaurant and hospitality industries.