LOOKING BACK AT 2012: Hydraulic fracturing ban lifted

Lee County central to both drilling interests and regulatory board
Jan. 04, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

Editor's note: In the fourth installment of The Herald's countdown of the top five stories of 2012, the hydraulic fracturing ban is lifted.


After the General Assembly voted to lift a decades-old ban on hydraulic fracturing this summer, Lee County emerged at the center of discussion.

Despite its small size, the county holds most of the state's known natural gas reserves. In addition, three of the 15 members on the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission (MEC) — charged with developing rules and regulations for the gas industry within the next two years — have Lee County ties, and one member each hails from neighboring Moore and Chatham counties.

Although the group was charged with establishing regulations, many members could stand to gain if the process commonly known as fracking is allowed to commence with few barriers. Of the 12 appointed members, eight either have professional ties to the mining industry or have proclaimed their support of drilling, including Jim Womack, the commission's chairman and a Lee County Commissioner.

Womack and other pro-drilling advocates say it will create jobs, broaden the tax base and, most importantly, has never been definitively linked to groundwater pollution despite years of scientific studies.

Critics point to reports of high rates of disease and pollution near extraction sites, legal techniques such as "forced pooling" that let gas companies force land owners to participate in fracking whether they want to or not, and the massive amount of water the process would take from local bodies of water. Additionally, a U.S. Geological Survey study presented in April found a six-fold increase in earthquakes in the central part of the country from 2001-11, which has seen a gas drilling boom over the same period, and called the increase "almost certainly man-made."

North Carolina is estimated to have a five-year supply of natural gas — relatively small by industry standards — but proponents say there could be up to 40 years worth of gas underground, and that the only way to find out is to drill. Because drilling will be legal in two years, what remains to be seen is how much gas there really is and how much regulation energy companies will face.

In a recent interview, Womack said the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the MEC will give periodic public updates, and that he expects public hearings or town hall meetings to be held to respond to citizens' concerns.

At least two of the MEC study groups — Compulsory Pooling and Local Government — will have hold meetings at the McSwain Agricultural Center in Lee County over the next nine months, he said. The next Compulsory Pooling Study Group meeting is set for 9 a.m. on Jan. 11 at the McSwain Center.