Local & State Voices

Behind the push for N.C. fracking

Come hell or high water, N.C. lawmakers intend to have hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, underway in the Tar Heel state by next year. Make that come hell or dirty, polluted, toxic water.

With this week’s state Senate vote approving, among other things, the issuing of drilling permits in July 2015, the 29-page fracking bill goes to the House. If lawmakers there approve it, and Gov. Pat McCrory signs the measure, drilling is all but certain to begin next year.

On Thursday, lawmakers backed away from a couple of eyebrow-raising parts of the bill: The bill had made it a Class 1 felony to disclose so-called “trade-secret” chemicals companies use in fracking. That felony provision was stricter than most other states for such trade secret violations, experts said. A last-minute change made such disclosures a misdemeanor.

The bill, which requires that companies divulge their fracking ingredients to the state geologist who would keep them confidential, now also would require the geologist to report within five days any chemicals that are on state or federal banned lists.

Those changes shouldn’t make us any less queasy about the rush to frack in North Carolina. Environmentalists have raised legitimate concerns about fracking and this legislation.

The N.C. Conservation Network says the bill fails to address some of the biggest risks fracking poses. They include disposal of toxic fracking wastewater, toxic air emissions, long-term contamination that’s revealed after a drilling operation is done, and protecting landowners and the environment when gas is moved from wells to processing facilities.

Environmentalists also say the bill shrinks the zone of liability for drillers who cause drinking water contamination from 5,000 feet to 2,640 feet. And if Mecklenburg or any local government wanted to restrict fracking, it couldn’t. This legislation takes away that local decision-making.

This week, the Fayetteville Observer detailed other troubling aspects of the bill. It says the bill’s tax and fee structure would give gas companies a significant break compared with that of some other states.

The rules sound a lot like the gas industry wrote them. They largely did – through the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC.

You remember ALEC, don’t you? They’re the pro-business group that has powered through a conservative agenda in state legislatures nationwide including here in North Carolina.

Two years ago, The New York Times highlighted ALEC’s influence on fracking bills, taking note of its model legislation on fracking chemical disclosure. According to the Times, the model bill was “sponsored within ALEC” by ExxonMobil. Last year, five states introduced legislation similar to the ALEC model. Now, North Carolina has too.

Officials here though didn’t depend just on ALEC. Some members of North Carolina’s Mining and Energy Commission held private talks with energy industry executives and lobbyists before recommending that the state let drillers keep secret the chemicals they use to frack.

The Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker reported earlier this month that at least three members of the 14-member board met privately with representatives of energy giant Halliburton and other companies that sell the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. Commission chairman Jim Womack readily acknowledges he met with Halliburton and others: “They indicated to me in a phone conversation that there may be other options than what was written in that rule.” The bill was taken back and rewritten.

Womack also admits to skepticism about groundwater contamination due to fracking. “You’re more likely to have a meteorite fall from the sky and hit you on the head than you are to contaminate groundwater with fracking fluid percolating up from under the ground,” he said last year.

Really? Maybe that’s how Pennsylvania officials felt. They rushed into fracking six years ago, encountered significant problems and had to overhaul the state’s fracking rules and oversight. Pennsylvania has confirmed at least 106 water-well contamination cases since 2005. There were five confirmed cases of water-well contamination in the first nine months of 2012, 18 in all of 2011 and 29 in 2010.

Womack said “we closely examined the mistakes made in Pennsylvania so we could avoid their pitfalls.”

But this aggressive push to begin fracking – even if needed regulations aren’t in place – is troubling. And the cozy relationship between the oil and gas industry and the mining commission, lawmakers and other policymakers doesn’t inspire a lot of faith that protecting the public and the environment is the top priority.