Uninformed. Emotional. Irrelevant.
These are the ways several members of the N.C. Mining & Energy Commission have characterized public comments in recent months on the touchy subject of fracking. The commissioners have fretted that their public meetings could turn into free-for-all protest sessions unless public comments are strictly controlled.
Now the fracking commission is raising fresh questions about its commitment to public participation after an outspoken commissioner denounced an advisory group for becoming too influential and “too big for their britches.”
Commissioner George Howard wants the commission to clamp down on a “grandstanding” stakeholder panel that was set up to represent property owners, environmental groups and others. The group was assembled by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to assist the commission as it creates fracking standards for North Carolina.
Howard’s zingers, made late last month at a public meeting in Raleigh, are making fellow commissioners uneasy. His colleagues say the issue will be addressed in March at the commission’s next public meeting.
“It is awkward, and we cannot have that,” fellow commissioner Vik Rao said. “We need to air it out and come up with a commission position on the stakeholder group.”
The controversy has also focused attention on Howard’s business interests. His land restoration company has a pending $2.1 million proposal in Pennsylvania to repair stream and wetland damage caused by fracking, a controversial method of extracting natural gas by injecting water into rock formations.
The matter is blurred further by Howard’s relationship with the state’s top environmental regulator, whose agency will oversee fracking.
Howard in 1998 co-founded his business, Restoration Systems, and later brought in John Skvarla as CEO. Skvarla recently left the company to become secretary of DENR. The agency also provides staff support for the commission.
Last week, Howard expressed regret for the “britches” comment, acknowledging it was an insult and inappropriate. Skvarla dismissed Howard’s off-the-cuff remarks as harmless wisecracks.
“I think it’s funny, I really do,” Skvarla said. “It wasn’t said in any malice or anything.
“I laughed,” Skvarla added. “This is not something to lose any sleep over.”
Fracking remains illegal in North Carolina until the state legislature votes to approve safety standards that are now being developed. The commission has until 2014 to prepare three reports and write about 100 rules covering well construction, wastewater disposal, landowner rights and other issues.
Fracking advocates say shale gas will provide a cheap and clean fuel to offset dirty coal and imported oil, while critics say lateral drilling and smashing rock under aquifers poses unacceptable environmental risks.
Howard is one of several commission members who has publicly extolled the wonders of fracking. Nevertheless, when Skvarla was chief executive of Restoration Systems, the company described fracking as a “threat” to the ecosystem.
‘A bona fide group’
DENR spokesman Jamie Kritzer said the agency set up the stakeholder group to assist two panels: the Mining & Energy Commission and the Environmental Management Commission. Only unanimous decisions from the group are forwarded as recommendations.
Mining & Energy Commission Chairman James Womack, who previously expressed concern about out-of-control public comments, defends the stakeholder process.
“The stakeholder group is a bona fide group of interested parties that is managed by the DENR staff,” Womack said.