Fracking debate advances

Jan. 09, 2014 @ 05:02 AM

This is the last full calendar year before natural gas operations, including the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, can be made legal in North Carolina. Much will therefore be in store, and at stake, for those on either side of the drilling debate.

Most recently, the issue of water contamination at drilling sites was raised by the Associated Press, which found that thousands of complaints over the past few years, in four states where heavy drilling is happening, resulted in hundreds of confirmations that drilling for oil or gas had, indeed, contaminated people’s well water.

The AP declared that the study “casts doubt on industry suggestions that such problems rarely happen.”

Yet Jim Womack, a drilling proponent who leads the Mining and Energy Commission, the state group tasked with developing rules and regulations for the development of natural gas and other energy sources, said he disagrees and would even question the validity of the study.

Womack, who is also a Lee County Commissioner, doesn’t deny that contamination exists. However, he said it’s not endemic but rather stems from human error. The oil and gas industry as a whole, Womack said, comes down hard on such violators — and as a result, instances of pollution are few and far between.

“There’s a million wells, and they’re talking about a handful of events,” he said, adding that when it does happen, the company responsible has cleaned up, provided fresh water to everyone affected and paid damages.

Interviewed just days before the AP’s study on water contamination, Raleigh-based environmental activist Therese Vick told The Herald she was concerned about the possibility of water contamination and other types of pollution, and that she wouldn’t trust energy companies to police themselves.

“My contention with a lot of the arguments the industry puts forth as to water quality is it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” she said.

Womack, for his part, said it’s his intent to craft sufficiently strong rules for the state to adopt — and that the AP report won’t change anything the MEC has been doing because “we’re already sensitive to the potential for contamination. We’re very sensitive to that.”

In fact, he said, it’s because his group has been taking so much time developing rules that he doesn’t think North Carolina will have the same degree of issues that states like Pennsylvania and Ohio are experiencing. He said those states rushed into drilling, whereas North Carolina has been more cautious.

“If they could do it all over again, they’d say, ‘Wow, we wish we could do what North Carolina is doing,’” Womack said. “That’s what I’m hearing from my counterparts.”

So while the MEC chairman said he’s comfortable with how discussion on water pollution rules are going, 2014 could still see other debates. He said recent legal developments from Pennsylvania, and a scientific study out of California, could lead to new discussion on air pollution and the regulatory power of local governments over energy development.

Womack also told The Herald last month that, despite slower-than-expected work on chemical disclosure rules and other controversial issues, he expects the MEC to have all its recommendations submitted on time for the general public to review.

“Before winter next year, before a year from now, we’ll have things out for public comment,” he said in December.

Following a comment period this fall, the recommendations would go to the General Assembly, where lawmakers could adapt them, tweak certain parts or rewrite large sections. By March 2015, the moratorium could be lifted by the legislature — where the Republican majority has supported energy development, touting the possibility of jobs and tax revenue.

Lee County, where much of the state’s known gas reserves are trapped in shale under the surface, only recently reached a single-digit unemployment rate for the first time since the recession began. But some people say the increased levels of pollution and crime often associated with — or even directly linked to — natural gas operations aren’t worth the potential economic boost.

In the last months of 2013, those traveling along U.S. 1 near the border of Lee and Moore counties could see a billboard depicting a less-than-attractive site for storing waste from natural gas operations in Pennsylvania. Large text over the image declared “Keep NC Frack Free.”

Keely Wood, the Sanford anti-fracking activist who paid for it — and called it the first anti-fracking billboard in the state — said in December she had no plans to buy another billboard after that one came down with the new year.

She will do other work, though, she told The Herald, to fight what she sees as apathy toward the possibility of drilling in local areas.

And Vick, a community organizer with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, has said her group has been reaching out to more and more grassroots groups and will look to ramp up those efforts even more in the coming year.

One such grassroots group is “Lee County N.C. say NO to Fracking” which has more than 600 fans on Facebook, where leaders send anti-drilling messages and organize meetings. And as 2014 marches on, Vick said earlier this month, expect to see more activity from such groups.

“We work in Stokes, Lee, Chatham and Anson [counties], and our new organizer has met with some folks in Moore County, too,” she said.