Fracking opponents dominate discussion at local meeting

Mar. 11, 2013 @ 12:42 PM

When Lynn Fass sold her horse farm in New Jersey several years ago, she wanted to get as far away from the drilling she partially blames for her property's depreciation as possible. Now, living in Chatham County, she's facing fracking once again.

Fass spoke at a Tuesday night meeting in which more than 50 people came to speak or listen. It was the first major public meeting about fracking in the area that hasn't been run by the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission. No members of the commission — several of whom live or work nearby — attended the forum.

Going by the name of Stand Your Ground N.C. w/ Ed Harris Against Fracking, the meeting's promotional material, speakers and audience made it clear that the night's theme would generally be opposition to fracking, and specifically the related practice of compulsory pooling.

Compulsory pooling allows gas companies to force landowners to hand over their mineral rights and sometimes their surface rights to those companies, as long as enough of their neighbors sign leases. It's legal in almost every state, although the North Carolina law is now under review by the MEC due to the recent legalization of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, the process used to blast natural gas out of shale deposits with a mixture of water, sand and chemicals.

The MEC has held two local meetings related to forced pooling — one in Sanford and another in Pittsboro — but Ray Covington, the leader of the MEC's study group on forced pooling, and who is also a major landowner in Lee County, said previously that he didn't plan to attend this meeting, which had no governmental involvement or input. However, Rob Knight, who co-owns a pro-drilling land cooperative with Covington and Knight's brother Russ, did attend the meeting and even spoke despite being told by several audience members to leave.

Knight told the audience that forced pooling is likely to happen, and that they need to form large groups — to be able to bring more land to the table and thus get better lease terms — instead of being forced into a pool, which under the current law allots landowners almost no rights.

Harris, who organized the speakers but didn't include Knight, nevertheless told those heckling Knight to let him speak because everyone is entitled to an opinion. Harris himself urged people to speak with a lawyer if they do plan to sign a lease.

"They're going to be your best buddies," Harris said of the people coming around with leases to sign. "They're going to be as friendly as a couple of hound pups that someone dropped off in your driveway. ... They're going to have a wad of cash that could choke a goat."

But that won't stop them from using sneaky tactics that could end up harming landowners, he said. And, he added, the potential for accidents is huge, and people shouldn't sign away their rights or liability.

"Folks, fracking might be the greatest thing since sliced bread," Harris said. "But when it goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong."

Fass' story amplified that point. She had 10 horses, she said, and an old pipeline through her land. She allowed an energy company to use it, but she said they mistreated her at every step of the way, even going as far as to secretly sell her topsoil to other companies until she found out. At one point, she said, the workers went on strike because the pipe on her property was very thin and they feared an accident. She said the company promised they'd fix it but never did, until she started lobbying people in Washington, D.C.

"These companies will tell you whatever you want to hear," she said. "They will lie to you. ... They are just in it for themselves, for the greed."

She ended up selling her property for about $300,000 less than it was appraised for, she said, although she did admit that she's not sure how much of that was caused by the aftermath of drilling and how much was caused by the collapse of the housing market.

Several speakers noted that poor residents will be affected as well, although in different ways.

Janeth Benitez, from Lee County's Workers for Clean Water, said fracking would have negative consequences for middle class and poor workers. The influx of workers might drive up the price of rent, she said, just as the use of millions or even billions of gallons of water could drive up water prices. Plus, she said, poor can't benefit from fracking because they generally don't own the land they live on, but they will still get all of the same negatives, like potential exposure to chemicals that could cause infertility or cancer.

"As a poor worker, I cannot afford such costly medical treatments," she said.

And despite promises of job creation, she said, she thinks most jobs will be low-wage positions in the service industries that pop up around drilling enterprises, not in the more lucrative gas industry, which requires experience that most people in North Carolina don't have.

Bill Tatum, who ran unsuccessfully against local Rep. Mike Stone in November's N.C. House race, said he toured many counties in Pennsylvania that had fracking in preparation for his campaign and came away with mixed emotions, which he said was true of the communities he visited as well.

He said he saw those who got rich off drilling, but also those who were bankrupted. Also, Tatum noted, only about a quarter of the jobs in the industry require a college education, and those workers don't often settle in the community that's being fracked. The people who do, he said, are the less educated ones who don't have good prospects for employment once the wells dry up. But on the other hand, a town not much bigger than Broadway had just built three motels to accommodate new workers, which stimulated the economy at least for a time.

"It's still debatable," he said. "I'm not taking issue with this group or the pro-fracking folks. From my point of view, born and raised here in Lee County, I generally want to see — if we are going to move forward — is it safe? Will it be a boon? ... As we all know, we need that boost in Lee County."

There's no word yet on when — or if — this group will hold a second meeting. The meeting schedule for the MEC can be found online at http://portal.ncdenr.org.