Don’t allow fracking in Western North Carolina. That was the clear message from the nearly 90 people who spoke to members of the state Mining and Energy Commission on Sept. 12 in Cullowhee. They were voicing their concerns at the last of four public hearings on proposed rules for hydraulic fracturing, a drilling method that involves injecting water, sand, and chemicals under high pressure into shale formations to extract natural gas.
Earlier this year, N.C. legislators announced the end of a fracking moratorium, the beginning of studies of areas in the state that could hold natural gas in shale formations, and the possibility of fracking permits being approved in 2015. Parts of WNC made the list, with some shale formations in Jackson and Haywood counties, although the Sylva Herald reported recently that the state environmental agency and geologists have indicated that shale gas is unlikely to exist in the region in quantities that would make it profitable for companies to extract it.
Even with such news, more people showed up in Cullowhee — about 560 — than had in previous hearings in Raleigh, Reidsville, and Sanford, where turnout didn’t top 500.
In a pre-hearing press conference, Amy Adams, former supervisor for surface water protection at the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said, “To get a visual of the significance of these rules, think of them as a giant dam. The rules are the wall holding back the potential harm of industry. The wall must be tall enough and strong enough to protect the communities downstream of the dam.” She added, “The rules need improvements in every one of the 14 areas. Not one section has the teeth or the backbone needed to protect our communities.”
Then for four straight hours, three members of the Mining and Energy Commission — Amy Pickle, Kenneth Taylor, and James Womack — heard what attendees had to say about reinstating the moratorium and strengthening the rules to protect the health and safety of the public.
Russell Johnson, talk-show host of “Political Alchemy” on Asheville FM, a community radio station, asked the crowd to stand when he had his turn at the microphone. “We’re all one people,” he said. “If we stand together we can make this change.” Addressing the commissioners, he said, “We’re asking you to make a moratorium so there will be no fracking activity in this state.”
Other speakers backed Johnson’s call for a moratorium and made suggestions for strengthening regulations for fracking — increased distances between the wells and occupied buildings and drinking-water sources, prevention of compulsory pooling (in which landowners can be forced to lease their land to fracking companies), public disclosure of the chemicals used, long-term groundwater monitoring after drilling, wastewater storage in enclosed tanks instead of open pits, and more.
Katie Hicks of Clean Water for North Carolina noted a rule that’s been missing: “Continuous air monitoring for fracking wells near occupied buildings must be required.”
Fred O’Connor, owner of a solar design company, asked for a show of hands for support of fracking. Not a single hand in the auditorium was raised. He then asked how many were in favor of clean renewable energy, and every hand in the crowd went up.
Madison County resident Peter Robbins argued that fracking creates unique risks in WNC, which has steep-slopes, a diverse ecosystem and an abundance of wildlife. He cited problems related to narrow roads not equipped for the possible 24-hour traffic drilling entails, a lack of cell-phone service in many areas that makes emergency response impossible, and the frequency of landslides. “I came to suggest one practical solution,” he said, “which is to include a provision that says: In WNC, because of the severe and unique risks and the very small likelihood of any economic gain, we won’t allow fracking at this time.”
Tom Hill, the Democrat running against Republican Mark Meadows in the 11th Congressional district, took a stand against fracking despite previous statements that he supports it and would back policies to make it safe. “I oppose fracking,” said Hill. “My opponent does not oppose fracking.” (Meadows didn’t attend the hearing; he was quoted in the Macon News as voicing support for fracking, “if [it] can be done in a safe way, and we are able to retain control of our own energy needs.”)
Hill claimed that the problem originated on the federal level with the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which was pushed by then-Vice President Dick Cheney. “It exempted fracking from the normal rules of the Environmental Protection Agency,” said Hill. “It was appropriately called … the Halliburton loophole. We can only stop this if we put people in Congress who will vote to repeal it.”
Sabrina DiCarlo, office manager at Smart Start of Buncombe County, a nonprofit early-childhood agency, echoed Hill’s sentiments. “The truth is,” said DiCarlo, “currently there is no safe way to frack. This can even be seen in the exemptions. Any industry that requires exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act should be considered fundamentally unsafe.”
Di Carlo summed up the sentiment of the hearing by saying, “We all want jobs for ourselves and neighbors. And we all enjoy using energy every day. The difference is that we believe that there are cleaner and safer ways to get there and that fracking is not the answer.”
MEC is accepting written comments through Tuesday, Sept. 30, by email to oil&gas@NCDENR.gov or by mail to Mining and Energy Commission, Attn: Oil and Gas Program, 1612 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27669-1612.