by Rose Ellen O'Connor
The North Carolina House of Representatives has passed a bill that moves the state a step closer to allowing hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" in the state, where it is now banned. The measure calls for a study - to be completed by May 1, 2012 - of whether the controversial method of extracting natural gas from shale would be environmentally safe in North Carolina. The state Senate passed a larger energy bill last month that calls for a similar study.
Fracking blasts water, sand and hazardous chemicals into the ground at high pressure to crack open shale and extract natural gas. It can contaminate ground water, deplete water supplies, lead to flammable faucet water and leave polluted waste water in its wake. Last month in Pennsylvania a fracking well exploded, spewing thousands of gallons of chemical-laden liquid into a creek.
Supporters of fracking say the natural gas industry has done a poor job of explaining natural gas exploration and that environmentalists have engaged in fear mongering. They say the risks have been exaggerated and are outweighed by the benefits. Fracking provides a domestic source of energy that is cheaper than oil and cleaner than natural gas. Fracking can be safely regulated, they say.
"The only question is whether they're going to use the natural resources that are there in North Carolina or import them from somewhere else," an industry executive who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not a company spokesman said. "States that develop their resources tend to do better in economic downturns."
Environmentalists disagree that the benefits outweigh the risks.
"We're concerned about toxic air releases, drinking water contamination and contaminated ground water supplies for tens of thousands of folks depending on private wells" in the area where fracking is being considered, Hope Taylor, director of Clean Water for North Carolina, said. "These folks could suddenly find themselves faced with the kind of well contamination that has been reported many times in several states -
natural gas at high enough concentrations to be lit at the tap or even explosive."
Duke University released a study last month that found flammable methane in drinking water wells near fracking sites in New York and Pennsylvania. It also found the same type of gas in nearby drinking wells as the energy companies were extracting from deep below the ground.
"I think the experience that other states have had should cause great concern." Elizabeth Outzs, state director of Environment North Carolina said. "Water pollution is a huge concern but so is air pollution. Fracking contributes almost as much to air pollution in Dallas as what's emitted by cars and trucks."
State geologists say that fracking could make North Carolina energy independent for 40 years. And some environmentalists, including President Barrack Obama, support extracting natural gas from shale because it emits less than half the green house gases as coal. They believe fracking can be safely regulated.
Rep. Mitch Gillespie (R-McDowell), who sponsored the bill, said fracking could mean $200 million in royalties to the state and jobs and royalties for residents of the region where the natural gas is located. There are 14 counties in central North Carolina that potentially sit on natural gas, but most of the attention is on Lee and Chatham counties, near Raleigh, where a state geological survey found natural gas in 2008. There is also interest in Moore and Durham counties.
Gillespie says fracking will not go forward unless the state Department of Environmental and Natural Resources concludes it is safe. "The whole purpose of the bill is to look at environmental concerns before fracking is done," Gillespie said. "Environmental concern is the whole darn reason for the bill."
Gillespie made a concession to environmentalists at a committee vote on the bill last week, saying the state would also consider the findings of a study of fracking being done by the federal Environmental Protection Agency due in 2012. Environmentalists said they were relieved.
But EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has already spoken favorably about fracking. She told the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee on May 24 that she was "not aware of any proven case where fracking in itself" had affected water.
"Thanks to the advance in drilling technology, including hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," Jackson said in a prepared statement, "America's potential natural gas production is fifty percent larger than it was just a few years ago."
Noting that the price of natural gas is not set on the global market as the price of oil is and that burning natural gas creates less air pollution than other fossil fuels, she added, "So increasing natural gas production is a good thing."
Natural gas interests are already planning for fracking in North Carolina. Jim Simons, a geologist with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, says at least four companies are signing leases with residents of Lee County. The most active drilling firm is Denver-based Whitmar Exploration.
Some environmentalists support the study, saying they are thankful Gillespie let them help craft the bill. "We're very pleased," Dan Crawford, lobbyist for Conservation Foundation says, but adds, "I look at this bill as a way to whether fracking can be done safely."
Other environmentalists say they do not believe fracking could ever be found safe but fear it is a foregone conclusion for North Carolina. Clean Water for North Carolina's Taylor says that Kenneth Taylor (no relation), chief of the North Carolina Geological Survey, which is part of the Department of Natural Resources, has been touting the benefits of fracking to reporters. State geologist Simons testified at a house hearing that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources could adequately regulate fracking if it were given more staff.
"The study's being done by an agency that seems to be chomping at the bit to go," Taylor said. "The agency is already showing its bias."
Reprinted with permission from DC Bureau