Speakers talk strategy with local fracking opponents

Mar. 27, 2014 @ 05:01 AM

Gathered at a Pinehurst church, dozens of anti-fracking activists from Central Carolina heard national speakers spread their environmental gospel late into Tuesday night.

Robert Nehman, of Iowa, and Jill Wiener, of rural New York, both relayed their own success stories in stopping or delaying development related to natural gas drilling in small, conservative communities with a strong agricultural focus — areas similar to the communities in Lee, Chatham and Moore counties that would be at the epicenter of drilling in North Carolina should the state’s current ban be lifted.

Nehman said he helped temporarily stop construction of a silica mine in his home county, which would have produced sand for hydraulic fracturing operations. Silica mining produces carcinogenic dust clouds, he said, not to mention 4,000 semi truck trips a week.

But despite the allure of jobs and the industry’s promises of safety, Nehman said, he convinced local leaders to push the project back by 18 months and write stronger regulations than were originally proposed. Part of his success, he said, came through reaching younger people by partnering with a popular local band to make music videos using footage of mining sites elsewhere.

“I live in a very conservative county,” Nehman told the decidedly left-leaning crowd at the Congregational Church of Pinehurst. “We have three Republican supervisors (similar to county commissioners) who voted, unanimously, for our moratorium. It’s not a political thing. It’s a quality of life thing.”

Wiener was involved in statewide activism in New York, which has since stopped hydraulic fracturing until at least next year. Her group mailed officials thousands of postcards with people’s complaints about hydraulic fracturing, she said, and they shadowed N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo to various meetings and fundraisers — even out of state — to stage protests wherever he went.

“It sounds aggressive, and it was,” Wiener said.

She said it’s also important to start by picking issues — like forced pooling — which both conservatives and liberals might agree on, and build from there.

“Fighting fracking and (liquefied natural gas) exports is a patriotic issue,” she said. “It’s not partisan. You should wrap yourself in Old Glory and fight.”

Supporters of drilling, however, argue exactly the opposite by pointing out America’s partial reliance on Venezuela, Russia and Saudi Arabia for crude oil (although the vast majority of oil used in the U.S. comes from the U.S., Canada or Mexico). They say that by ramping up domestic oil and gas production, America can wean itself from dependence on foreign countries.

Furthermore, the energy industry deserves credit for economic booms in the states with the fastest-growing wages, according to a U.S Department of Commerce report released just hours before Tuesday’s meeting in Pinehurst.

“Mining (including oil and gas extraction) was one of the major contributors to earnings growth in North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Texas in 2013,” the report claims. “Earnings growth rates in these three states have outpaced the national average not only in 2013, but in each of the four years since the recession.”

Yet both Nehman and Wiener said other economic factors — such as strains on social services and the criminal justice system, road repairs and more — paint a less rosy picture of the net economic impact when drilling comes to town.

After the speeches and a dinner break, the group of about 50 activists reconvened for a seminar on how to effectively lobby state lawmakers and regulators as they approach the final stretch in finalizing drilling rules.

The N.C. Mining and Energy Commission, led by Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack, is in charge of writing regulatory recommendations for the General Assembly. Its reports will be finished this summer, and there will be a period of time for the general public to comment on them before the legislature votes on the rules.