After passage of the Energy Modernization Act in June opened the door to fracking in North Carolina, the state’s Mining and Energy Commission is accepting public comment through Sept. 15 on the draft rules for regulating the controversial practice. The law, which lifted the moratorium on fracking enacted in 2012, also prohibits disclosure of chemicals used in the process and bars local governments from banning it.
Fracking, in which large amounts of water, sand and chemicals are injected into shale formations to extract natural gas or oil, is exempt from federal Clean Water Act regulations.
Proponents say fracking can be done safely and could significantly boost the state’s economy; opponents cite concerns about groundwater contamination, impaired quality of life and landowners being forced to sign leases.
Public meetings soliciting input on the draft rules had been scheduled for Raleigh, Sanford and Reidsville; a fourth, in Cullowhee, was added after local environmental groups and businesses requested such a session in the mountain region.
Sen. Jim Davis of Franklin, a co-sponsor of the bill, says, “It’s important for North Carolina to get in on the natural gas revolution in energy. We shouldn’t sit on the sidelines and watch other states do it. … In an effort to become more and more energy self-sufficient, I think we ought to do nuclear and conservation and wind and solar and clean coal. We can do this safely, so I don’t see it as a problem.”
But Sally Morgan, a researcher and organizer with the nonprofit group Clean Water for North Carolina, says, “A lot of studies have shown groundwater contamination from fracking. There’s also a lot of industry denial. And a lot of settlement agreements require families not to disclose their groundwater contamination.”
Fracking in the mountains?
Retired geologist Charles Holbrook, a former Chevron executive who helped craft the draft rules while serving on the Mining Commission, says fracking “would potentially bring a significant new business activity to the state. It would be enriching to the land and mineral owners who experience oil and gas production from their properties. It would also provide a significant number of jobs and a significant amount of revenue to the state and would allow for creation of a fairly large number of associated small businesses that could participate at various levels in the operational activities.”
Natural gas deposits have already been found in the Deep River and Dan River basins in central North Carolina. State officials have allocated funds for testing for the presence of natural gas in the seven WNC counties Davis represents: Haywood, Jackson, Swain, Graham, Macon, Cherokee and Clay. But Davis says, “It’s unlikely that they’ll do a test well. The rock formation out here is not conducive to natural gas. It would be pretty pointless to do it, because we don’t have a distribution system. There’s no pipeline out here.”
Buncombe County Rep. Tim Moffitt, adds Davis, “is considering putting in a technical corrections bill to not even put money to do a test well out here.”
Nonetheless, Julie Mayfield, co-director of the Western North Carolina Alliance, believes fracking on public land is a major issue facing the mountain region. Although national parks such as the Smokies are off limits, national forest land is not. “The Forest Service,” she notes, “is in the process of revising its management plan … and could open [the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests] to fracking.”
Mayfield says her group “will distill the rules and help people focus on comments. Our job is to make information accessible.” Anyone who’s interested, she notes, can also sign up for action alerts with the WNC Alliance, the North Carolina Conservation Network, or Clean Water for North Carolina.
Safety, climate change and property rights
Much of the debate about fracking focuses on whether it can be regulated in a way that protects human health and the environment. When the moratorium was imposed in 2012, legislators were going to hold a second vote — after the rules governing fracking had been written and the public had weighed in — before deciding whether to lift the ban. But the new law eliminated that step.
Holbrook, though, says fracking has been “going on close to 10 years now. More than a million wells have been drilled, and it’s been done safely. There have been a few little minor incidences but primarily related to surface operations. Even the EPA has stated that they have no credibly documented cases where contamination of freshwater resources has occurred as a result of the hydraulic fracturing operations themselves. These environmental groups who are fighting this tooth and nail … are looking for ways to distort the truth, in my opinion.”
Morgan, however, points out that “Since fracking could potentially contaminate drinking water … we don’t think it can be done safely for communities or public health. You can’t protect from pollution — only test for it afterward. Groundwater moves slowly; it could take five to 10 years or more for contamination to happen. Once groundwater is contaminated, it’s very hard to clean.”
Fracking, she continues, can also impact climate change. “There’s this myth that burning natural gas is better for the climate than burning coal, because it releases about half the amount of carbon dioxide. But throughout the entire process of getting natural gas you’re releasing unburned methane, which is … a very potent greenhouse gas. We think we’re transitioning to something cleaner with natural gas, but in reality it’s just as bad, if not worse, than coal.”
Morgan says the draft rules should be revised to increase setback distances from water wells, homes and schools; increase the baseline distance used when testing for groundwater contamination; and require public disclosure of all chemicals used, which the new law prohibits.
Morgan also favors eliminating the “compulsory pooling” rule, which would force landowners to lease their mineral rights if 90 percent of the surrounding land (not 90 percent of landowners) is already being leased. Small landowners, she notes, would be at a disadvantage. “If you own your own property, you should be able to decide whether to allow fracking on it,” Morgan maintains. “It could lead to a decrease in standard of living through thousands of truck trips, noise, questionable well water and compressor stations.”
Get the facts
UNC Asheville geology professor Jackie Langille says that while there are valid environmental concerns about fracking, there are also many misconceptions. “There will not be environmental issues every time a well is emplaced,” she says.
Groundwater contamination, she points out, occurs “only if there is leaking.” And “Methane can be released into groundwater naturally from rocks without fracking … or from natural decay processes. There is often a lot of uncertainty about what was in the water before fracking. Unless you do pre- and post-tests, you can’t know for sure.”
Last year, however, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources returned more than $200,000 in EPA grant funds that would have paid for such testing in areas that might be affected by future fracking.
And earthquakes, she explains, “are caused by the injection of wastewater” that is a byproduct of fracking, not by the fracking itself. “When it comes to regulation, it would be good to consider where to store wastewater,” Langille notes.
In the end, she says, the most important thing is “to have an educated point of view, so you can make your own informed judgment. Be aware of what could happen, but also understand why it can happen and how likely it is.”
The Mining and Energy Commission’s public-input sessions on the draft fracking rules are scheduled for Wed., Aug. 20, in Raleigh, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Fri., Aug. 22, in Sanford, 5-9 p.m.; Mon., Aug. 25, in Reidsville, 5-9 p.m.; and Fri., Sept. 12, in Cullowhee, 5-9 p.m.
To view the draft rules and instructions for submitting written or online comments, go to portal.ncdenr.org/web/mining-and-energy-commission/draft-rules.
For details about the public-comment meetings, go to: portal.ncdenr.org/web/mining-and-energy-commission/public-comment-meetings.