When the General Assembly's short session convenes May 14, lawmakers will pave a smoother — and shorter — road to fracking in North Carolina. They're backed by advocates of fracking, some of whom see those against it as little more than speed bumps.
"As a general rule, environmental folks aren't interested in the truth — they're interested in stopping shale-energy development," says state Mining and Energy Commission chairman Jim Womack.
The controversial energy-extraction method could begin in North Carolina as early as March 2015, when a moratorium dating to 1945 that prohibits horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the state expires. In anticipation of that expiration, Womack says a legislative commission is rolling language into a drafted energy bill that would remove barriers that might otherwise delay mining companies from coming into North Carolina. It will, for example, allow companies to drill for shale gas without disclosing the chemicals they use. Womack expects the bill to "breeze right through" the General Assembly.
In anticipation of the moratorium's expiration, mining companies already have leased nearly 9,000 acres in Chatham, Moore and Lee counties.
Last June, the House upheld the moratorium after the Senate attempted to lift it without a legislative vote. The Mining and Energy Commission has worked since to complete a research and review process that has resulted in a set of about 120 safety standards for hydraulic fracturing, which involves injecting water mixed with sand and chemicals into a wellbore, or drill hole, to create small fractures for gas, petroleum and uranium-bearing solution to escape into the well.
The 120 rules are ostensibly intended to protect the environment and public health when fracking becomes a reality, but critics see them as little more than a red carpet for mining companies.
"They established minimum [safety] standards as quickly as possible," says Elisabeth Outz, state director of Environment North Carolina. "They've done everything they can to attract the mining industry and make it easy for them." Outz says the commission bulldozed through its final day of meetings, introducing dozens of new rules at the last minute with little discussion. "That's just one example of how they've rushed the process."
Womack says the review that led to the rules was the most comprehensive of its kind. "There's 34 other states with oil and gas rules, and not one of them took the time we did" to construct the rule set, which took the commission about two years.
Other states' review processes have been largely undisclosed, such as New York's. Documents released in April by that state's Department of Health contained no information on the department's review of large-scale fracking, including older outside studies instead. Outz's concerns that North Carolina's review was similarly opaque are compounded by the commission's bent toward mining; the Mining Committee chairman and vice-chairman are both former mining executives.
Womack says the joint commission will also introduce a bill calling for a significant reduction in required water sampling around fracking wellbores. Statutes adopted by the General Assembly in 2012 require sampling of all groundwater wells that lie within 5,000 feet of a vertical drill hole; Womack anticipates measures will be introduced in the short session that will reduce the required sampling distance to 2,500 feet. Testing to 5,000 feet "doesn't make any sense," he says. "It doesn't provide any additional safeguards, and it's costly."
Avner Vengosh, a Duke University professor of geochemistry and water quality, used data from current conventional gas drilling in North Carolina and shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania and New York to measure methane contamination of groundwater. He says the risk to water wells is actually greater at 3,280 feet or less — meaning contamination could exist outside the proposed reduced testing distance. Duke professor of global environmental change Robert Jackson conducted similar studies, recommending a testing distance of at least 3,000 feet.
"The legislature was being fairly conservative when it enacted the 5,000 feet requirements, as it should have been," says Outz, whose organization opposes hydraulic fracturing on the grounds that it could permanently contaminate North Carolina's water supply. "The state shouldn't allow fracking here, but if it does, why shouldn't it take every step possible to mitigate the risks to our drinking water?"
A study released in April by the National Institute of Health concluded that fracking "has not been shown to be safe," noting that increased proximity to fracking sites elevated risks for heavy-metal poisoning and endocrine disruptions, which can negatively impact fetal and early childhood development. The study underscored the fracking boom's quiet threat — the industry has exploded so rapidly that long-term links to cancer and other serious illnesses might not be seen until they emerge in the populations around fracked wells.
Opponents like Outz are concerned that an already-overburdened and weakened Department of Environment and Natural Resources couldn't handle a fracking accident should one occur. The General Assembly's reorganization of the department in 2013 resulted in both staff and budget cuts, hobbling critical divisions just before February's Dan River coal ash spill demanded more of them. Former DENR regional supervisor Amy Adams, who publicly resigned as a result of the cuts, estimated that the department's Division of Water Quality will be 24 percent smaller than it was three years ago by the time Womack expects fracking to begin.
"We've looked at the situation around the country and have concluded that it's not possible to carry out fracking without threatened water quality," Outz says. An Environment North Carolina investigation found that in 2012 alone, fracking nationwide generated 280 billion gallons of toxic wastewater.
Since the cocktail of chemicals used in fracking is so diverse and sometimes undisclosed, treatment of this wastewater is often incomplete, resulting in a high potential for the pollution of drinking water. "Add to that a department that's had its budget cut and is overburdened with other pollution concerns like coal ash, and the chances of protecting water quality with fracking are zero," Outz says.
The state's pro-fracking contingent has touted the potential for job growth since 2012, when The American Chemistry Council predicted that 15,000 jobs could be generated from natural-gas exploration in North Carolina. That number might be misleading, however, given the relatively short life cycle of a mining operation.
Womack admits that while N.C. community colleges are likely to begin offering shale energy-specific training as the industry matures, for the first two to five years mining companies are likely to bring in their own experienced employees from elsewhere for exploration and development. Even the short-term economic boost would be primarily to secondary and tertiary industries, like commercial drivers contracted to haul materials and hotels and restaurants patronized by out-of-town miners.
And shale energy would not be produced from the same locations indefinitely — resources from each drill hole are finite — and within 25 years, says Womack, "local industry would go back to where it was before drilling."
Of additional concern for opponents is the potential for fracking in more densely populated areas, like Chatham County near Chapel Hill, when risks to nearby residents might not yet be fully understood in North Carolina.
"You're looking at a process that's been done largely in uninhabited places away from urban centers and groundwater used for drinking," says a DENR environmental chemist who spoke anonymously. "In uninhabited areas, negative impacts might not be seen for 20 years or more, and by then the groundwater is impacted for a lifetime. We haven't seen enough data from more populated areas, and a lot of people don't want to be part of that experiment [if fracking begins in North Carolina]."
Womack argues that "if there were direct correlations to poisoning or long-term impacts, the EPA would've been all over it and shut the industry down." The EPA is currently conducting a study to better understand any potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water and groundwater.
North Carolina residents who might live around such wells will have a chance to sound off in public forums that begin in the fall in Raleigh, but Womack says a forum's impact "will depend on how constructive it is." He says the commission has already factored in suggestions that "made sense" from mining industry representatives and even environmental groups, though Womack did not cite specific groups.
"We don't presuppose to have uncovered every good idea for the state of North Carolina," he says. "If we get a lot of thoughtful written and oral input, it will have significant impact on the shape of the final rules. But emotional, sign-toting, chanting people saying 'Hell no, we won't go' — there's zero chance that'll have any impact."